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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Four Fallacies to Avoid in Evaluating Historical Figures


Guest blog by Edinburgh, UK editor and publisher Jacquetta Megarry; see note at end


Michael Brune's 22 July 2020 manifesto accusing John Muir of racism embodies four dangerous fallacies. They are not unique to the Sierra Club. Indeed, in the wake of the George Floyd's brutal death in Minneapolis in May 2020, worldwide reactions have included statue-toppling, cancelling of distinguished names and reputations, and attempts to rewrite history. The proposal to take John Muir's name off an elementary school named in his honour in San Francisco and elsewhere should be seen in this context of over-reaction to a tragic event that took place over a century after Muir's death in 1914. The proposal rests on four fallacies, which must be avoided:


1. Don't rely on a few words quoted out of context: evaluate the man's whole life.
Brune's attack relies on a few negative phrases quoted from the young Muir's unedited and unpublished journals. He ignores Muir's many other positive comments and, throughout his long life, his campaigns and travels. Later he travelled and spent time living with Native Americans, and commended their stewardship of the environment.


2. Never find somebody guilty by association.
Brune criticises John Muir for his friendship with "people like Henry Fairfield Osborn, who worked for both the conservation of nature and the conservation of the white race". Muir respected Osborn's work as a zoologist and paleontologist. Osborn's role in founding the American Eugenics Society, though, was years after Muir's death. Muir had a very wide circle of friends and colleagues; nobody is responsible for opinions other than their own.


3. Don't attribute prejudice to a person for words that became pejorative long after his death.

Fashions in language evolve over time. Words such as "negro" were at first purely descriptive, only later acquiring racist overtones. According to the Jim Crow Museum, until "black power" was coined in 1966, "negro" was how most back Americans described themselves. From the late 1980s, Jesse Jackson promoted the term African-American. Nowadays in some countries it's common to refer to people as black, in others as BME or BAME (black, asian and minority ethnic), BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of colour), and in others simply as people of colour. Before too long, any or all of these may become unacceptable as new words are adopted as "correct".


4. Beware of anachronistic judgement and woke rewriting of history.
Muir lived at a time when unthinking racism was the norm, and yet he challenged it by his words, deeds and campaigns. His radical thinking and pioneering conservation should be celebrated, not grotesquely rewritten by people who have barely studied him.


--Jacquetta Megarry is the founder of Rucksack Readers, a successful publisher of trail-handy guides to hiking paths in Ireland, England, and Scotland--including The John Muir Trail there.


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John Muir a Racist?!

John Muir a Racist?!

Scholars, Sierra Club Leaders Refute Charge

(Online at http://www.raymondbarnett.com/blog/posts/37785)

"A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes"-Mark Twain


     On July 22, 2020, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune stunned the club by unilaterally publishing a manifesto ("Pulling Down our Monuments") accusing founder John Muir of being a racist and the Sierra Club of being complicit ever since in defending and furthering systemic racism in American and the Sierra Club itself. 

     Within hours, a chain of emails began which linked 40 or so Sierra Club members, former officers, and academic scholars who were familiar with Muir's life and writings. Prominent among the themes recurring in these emails (which are ongoing today) was the obvious ignorance of Executive Director Brune regarding John Muir.


     The first email in the chain was from former Sierra Club national president Richard Cellarius, who promptly emailed Brune that very day: "Before you further continue the cleansing of John Muir from the Sierra Club…please read and reflect on the essay by Raymond Barnett, 'John Muir: Racist or Admirer of Native Americans?' "

     That essay carefully and at length considers Muir's life and writings, and concludes that "John Muir was not a racist, but to the contrary an admirer and staunch defender of North America's Native Americans, all the while honestly portraying the terrible burden they endured during their Sierra Nevada holocaust, and its affect upon them. Isolated instances in his journals or private letters when he occasionally expresses distaste for the appearances or manner of the holocaust-scarred Sierra Nevada Native Americans cannot be taken out of the much broader context of his many expressions of admiration of the Sierra Nevada and Alaska tribes; his touching enthusiasm for Alaska's Native American life, especially; his insistence that Native Americans were fully human "brothers"; and his heated in-the-face defense of California's Native Americans to a U.S. Army Colonel involved in extirpating them."


     The preeminent Muir biographer, Dr. Donald Worster, soon published an article coming to the same conclusion:  "Muir has been dead for more than a century, but if he could speak from the grave, I can easily imagine him agreeing that systemic racism is bad and should be repudiated, for he never published a word in support of black slavery, racial segregation, the Confederacy, forced sterilization of minorities, or genocidal policies toward Native Americans."


     And the former President of The Sierra Club Foundation, civil-rights attorney Guy T. Saperstein, also corrected Brune's mis-characterization of Muir in a widely-circulated July 29 email to Brune: "I applaud your efforts to make the Sierra Club more inclusive and to reflect the diversity of America…But I am appalled at the hatchet-job attack by you and the Sierra Club Board on John Muir's legacy. Muir may have made ill-considered comments about Native Americans and blacks as a young man, but he became enlightened about both races after living with black families on his walks in the South and living with Native Americans in Alaska.  How many of his era were even open to living with different races?  He decried the unfair treatment of blacks, and he expressed understanding and appreciation for Native Americans, while denouncing how whites had abused them with alcohol…Rather than the low-life racist you and the Board portray him as, Muir was high in the ranks of enlightened men of his time. Your attack is political correctness run amuck."


     Dr. W.R. Swagerty, Director of the John Muir Center at the University of the Pacific, was also dismayed by Brune's actions.  In a widely-circulated October 27 email, he said "I am so disappointed in the Sierra Club's leadership on this…Just as we are seeing so many wonderful children and young adult illustrated books on Muir make their way into the hands of students in elementary schools and junior highs…Sierra Club officers have decided to undermine that effort…May the Club survive, but may the leadership change."


     As Muir scholar Lee Stetson (better known for three decades of live portrayal performances of Muir) has put it, "To attribute racist comments to Muir…You'd have to disregard his entire lifetime of considered thoughts and good deeds, and to turn your back on any kind of historical perspective. It's unjust and stupid, but you could do it."


     The ignorance and injustice of Brune's mis-representation of Muir outraged leaders of the British hiking community as well; quickly Rucksacks Readers founder Jacquetta Megarry published an article entitled "Should the Sierra Club Apologise for John Muir?"  "My answer to the question in the title is a resounding NO!  The anachronistic self-flagellation of the club's present leaders does nothing to serve its long-term goals. They are displaying considerable ignorance of their founder member's early life, his nuanced writings, and above all of the attitudes prevalent when he lived. They have been seduced by the modern fad for rewriting history, preferably combined with some statue-toppling and feet of clay."


     Even some members of the Sierra Club's Board of Directors were upset by Brune's wrong-headed portrayal of Muir.  From Board member Chad Hanson's essay "Who Was John Muir, Really?": "This is the John Muir who is worthy of honor and respect—the Muir who evolved beyond his upbringing and worked to protect Nature while simultaneously promoting admiration for Native American culture and speaking against racist government policies…As we join together to create a more inclusive and just environmental movement, and to bring about needed societal transformations to increase environmental protections, racial equality and social justice, defining people by the trajectory of their lives, rather than by the worst or lowest versions of themselves across the history of their experience, is going to be important. Why? Because we are going to need people to evolve, to become better, if we're going to succeed. John Muir's evolution as a person can serve as an example of this."


     In view of these thoughtful statements from a multinational group of Muir scholars, outdoors people, and Sierra Club members, officers, and former officers, it seems clearly hasty and ill-advised to expunge Muir's name from any school, park, trail, or glacier. All those quoted here agree that systemic racism exists in American society and should be corrected. But they also agree that, based on full consideration of John Muir's life and writings, "cancelling" John Muir's name is not warranted, and in fact nonsensical. Certainly, for example, the name "John Muir Elementary School" should be maintained.


    Links to complete essays, articles referenced above  (5 to 15 minutes  each):

         Worster article: https://www.californiasun.co/stories/john-muir-biographer-he-was-no-white-supremacist/ (Distinguished historian Worster's A Passion for Nature: the life of John Muir is the preeminent modern biography of Muir)

     Megarry article (includes full Stetson quote): https://www.rucsacs.com/should-the-sierra-club-apologise-for-john-muir/ (Megarry is the founder of Rucksack Readers, a successful publisher of trail-handy guides to hiking paths in Scotland, Ireland, and England). See also her short essay Four Fallacies to Avoid in Evaluating Historical Figures: http://www.raymondbarnett.com/blog/posts/38068 .

     Hanson essayhttps://johnmuirproject.org/2020/07/who-was-john-muir-really/ (Pacific Crest Trail veteran Hanson founded the John Muir Project and is a Sierra Club Board member)

     Barnett essay: http://www.raymondbarnett.com/blog/posts/37037 (Retired Biology professor at Calif. State Univ., Chico, Barnett has authored essays and a book on Muir)

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Selecting and De-Selecting Our Model Americans

The recent wave of protests over the brutality of some police to Black people, and its blooming into a wider protest over the indefensible treatment of Blacks in America and colonialism in general, has been long overdue and thrown a harsh light on a subject that America needs to confront—and resolve. 


Deciding what exactly needs to be done, however, is not something that street protests are well-equipped to do.  Toppling statues of Confederate generals and slavery advocates is one thing; but many wonder about statues of Ulysses S. Grant and prominent abolitionists (because they didn't go far enough).


Throughout the nation, committees of NGO's (Sierra Club, for example) and local governments (school boards and city councils, for example) are preparing to eliminate prominent names from their monuments and schools. Here I acknowledge the contributions of the protests and the urgent need to begin the righting of wrongs. But I also suggest criteria for these committees to consider, means to ensure that schools and monuments honor not only appropriate Americans, but that the process of making these decisions is also a source of pride and honor. 


Three criteria ought to be considered integral to that process.  First and foremost, factual accuracy and context must be assured.  America these days is rife with partisan distortions and outright lies. These should have no part in decisions of import with lasting consequences. 


Any assessment of John Muir's attitude toward Native Americans, for example, must include his fulsome and detailed praise of Alaska's tribes after much time amongst them; his long support of Indian rights activist Charles Lummis and his Sequoyah League; and particularly his actions at an 1880 San Francisco dinner party hosted by Mary and John Swett, when he got in the face of Colonel Boyce of the Indian Extermination Campaign and denounced the "mean, brutal policy" as something Boyce should be "ashamed of."


A full and representative array of factual information must be acknowledged on any matter being considered, rather than "cherry-picking" isolated episodes out of context. Let's be sure we've got the facts straight before we judge.


Secondly, we must keep proportionality in mind; the consequence should "fit" the offense.  To do this, a gradient of offense should be established.  Should the consequence be different for someone who pens an unflattering description of Blacks, than for people (in the port city of Bristol, England, for example) who transported captured Blacks in horrible conditions to the American colonies? 


Is our natural revulsion at Muir's occasional unflattering descriptions of Sierra Native Americans affected by our realization that these unfortunate people likely appeared and acted very much as he describes them? They were, after all, in the very midst of a holocaust, their people murdered by White militias, the survivors scraping a living in marginal habitats.  Muir in fact was one of the few Californians of his time to actually look closely and see their suffering. Does it matter that in nearly every instance Muir follows his descriptions with praise of their positive accomplishments, and sometimes a reminder that all men are brothers?


In judging offenses and consequences, an offense at the low end of the scale might have the consequence of a prominent plaque at a site acknowledging the offense and its context forthrightly; an offense at the other end of the scale might merit stripping the name of the individual from the site altogether.  And of course, many consequences between these extremes can be devised.


Thirdly, we should consider whether relatively minor offenses might be balanced by signal achievements in other, positive areas.  I have read that U.S. Grant fell in love and married a women who owned slaves. As we judge this blemish, should we take into account that General Grant was instrumental in the victory of the North in the Civil War which ended formal slavery? Or that Grant as President was vigorous in his prosecution of the Ku Klux Klan throughout the South after the war?  Are these contributions perhaps more important than the offense of a slave-owning wife? 


We must remember: this is not about finding saints and casting aside as fatally flawed everyone who falls short.  Most of us have done some things we're not proud of. But we don't make a career of those shameful acts. Is it appropriate to honor decent, high-achieving folks in spite of relatively minor blemishes? Might not that be more real and inspiring than demanding sainthood? 


Every committee of people making these judgements will haves its own way of going about it. But I suggest that these three criteria be carefully considered. Selecting—and de-selecting—our models and heroes is serious work. And so we must have serious, thoughtful people doing that, people experienced in making graded judgments about their fellow Americans. 

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John Muir: Racist or Admirer of Native Americans ?

"Did you know that John Muir was a racist against Native Americans?"


The question took my old college roommate by surprise, at the end of a human development class he was teaching at Tufts University, in which Muir had been mentioned. It certainly caught me by surprise when he relayed the incident. I had read the biographies of Muir, as well as his books and journal entries, for my 2016 book about him - - without encountering such a charge.


Then I discovered a 2017 New York Times article which detailed genocide of California Native Americans in the Sierra Nevada. "Muir's view of Indians is depressing and painfully devoid of empathy," the article claimed. "The Indians he saw on trails struck him as filthy." Somehow, it seemed to suggest, Muir was sympathetic to, possibly a contributor to the mistreatment of the Native Americans.


Soon I had first-hand experience of the notion. While donating a copy of my book (Earth Wisdom: John Muir, accidental Taoist, charts humanity's only future on a changing planet) to a library, the Native-American receptionist looked up from the book in her hands, with Muir's photo on its cover. "He said we were an ugly people," she solemnly pronounced. As I stood gaping at her, she rose and led me to a nearby table, where two books on the California genocide were prominently displayed. And nodded knowingly to me.


Puzzled, I soon returned to the original sources to investigate the charges. Here's what I found. We'll consider a letter from an acquaintance of Muir's in which his attitude to Native Americans -- and actions expressing that attitude -- are plainly described. And we'll look at Muir's intimate, spontaneous thoughts expressed in his journals as he encounters Native Americans: in the Sierra Nevada in 1869 and in Alaska in 1879. Then you can decide for yourself whether John Muir was a racist against Native Americans.


First, the letter. Several months after his return from his first trip to Alaska in 1879, Muir was at a dinner party in the San Francisco home of John and Mary Swett, one of several guests. John Swett was the state Superintendent of Schools, and Muir had stayed in the family's attic rooms during several winters, "scribbling" about his year's outdoor adventures (and becoming a great favorite of the Swett children). Among that April, 1880 night's guests was an officer involved in the U.S. Army's "Indian extermination" campaign then occurring. The letter quoted here was written a few days after by Mary Swett, to her friend Louie Strentzel, who would marry Muir soon.


"He (Muir) not only excels in argument, but always takes the highest ground - - is always on the right side. He told Colonel Boyce the other night that Boyce's position was that of a champion for a mean, brutal policy. It was with regard to Indian extermination, and that Boyce would be ashamed to carry it with one Indian in personal conflict.... Further, Muir is so truthful that he not only will never embellish sketch or word-picture by any imaginary addition, but even retains every unsightly feature lest his picture should not be true." (Barnett boldface)

This revealing letter not only points to Muir's championing of Native Americans and his bold, in-your-face opposition to their mistreatment, but also hints at how the misperception of Muir's racism might arise. Critical to a proper understanding of what Muir saw and unflinchingly described in the Sierra Nevada of 1869 is an awareness that the Native Americans he encountered were experiencing the first generation of a holocaust that had destroyed their traditional culture and way of life.


The Spanish had begun the holocaust along the California Coast in the 1700s with the establishment of their Missions and their subjugation of the coastal Native Americans to serfdom on the newly appropriated Mission lands. The foothill and mountain tribes, though, were largely spared the theft of their homelands and the destruction of their way of life. Then gold was discovered in 1848, and as the Anglo-american and Chinese prospectors swarmed over the foothills, conflict arose with the Native Americans in those lands, who quite understandably resisted the theft of their homelands and the murder of those who protested.


The Mariposa Battalion, a band of armed vigilante Indian-hunters, rode into Yosemite Valley in the late winter of 1851, burning the homes and food stocks of the Native Americans there, and murdering the males they could find. In the decade and a half until the young Muir arrived in California, these scenes were repeated throughout the Sierra Nevada. The Native Americans were brutally expelled from their homelands, and relegated by the usurping Anglo-americans to marginalized areas unwanted by the new conquerors. The hunting and foraging resources that formerly sustained them were denied to them, or grudgingly tolerated if no Anglo-americans wanted the areas.


The Native Americans had no standing in the "laws" of the invaders. Murder of the males and rape of the women, as well as kidnapping of the youths for servants, was widespread and without recourse to the victims. So when the young Muir drives a herd of sheep into Tuolumne Meadow in the summer of 1869, the Native Americans he encounters are in the very midst of a holocaust that has utterly destroyed their way of life and banished them from their homes and hunting-gathering lands.


Is it to be wondered that Muir, who in Mary Swett's testimony "is so truthful that he not only will never embellish sketch or word-picture by any imaginary addition, but even retains every unsightly feature lest his picture should not be true," paints a "depressing" picture of the Native Americans he encounters there? Is there any way he could truthfully describe a happy, handsome people full of vitality and enjoying their lives?


The exceptional thing about Muir's depiction of the Sierra Nevada Native Americans he encounters in 1869 is how often he insists on crediting them with admirable traits, how persistently he compares their culture favorably above those of his fellow Anglo-americans, how often he reminds himself (and his future readers) that these struggling people are still "fellow beings" of Muir and his kind, how they in fact are, still, their "brothers."


And most importantly, John Muir was perhaps the only Anglo-american at this time to actually see the Native Americans of California, to look closely at them, to honestly observe and describe them, and to wonder what was going on with them. Considering that the Native Americans of California's Sierra Nevada were experiencing the first generation of a holocaust that had destroyed a way of life thousands of years old, it is not remarkable that what Muir saw was often jarring, unsightly, depressing, and sad. He saw it and described it, always accepting and declaring that these were human beings he was observing, and that there were aspects of their culture he found admirable. Their humanity was never in doubt - - in his eyes, at least.


Let's listen first to excerpts from his 1869 journals (later published as My First Summer in the Sierra; pages indicated are from the Modern Library 2003 edition). These excerpts will be uncomfortable to all of us, in places. But please note how he admires much about the Native Americans and insists on their humanity, even as he observes their - - to him -- puzzling sadness and dishevelment.


"One of the Indians from Brown's Flat got right into the middle of the camp this morning, unobserved. I was seated on a stone, looking over my notes and sketches, and happened to look up, was startled to see him standing grim and silent within a few steps of me, as motionless and weather-stained as an old tree stump that had stood there for centuries. All Indians seem to have learned this wonderful way of walking unseen, making themselves invisible.


"How many centuries Indians have roamed these woods nobody knows, probably a great many, extending far beyond the time that Columbus touched our shores, and it seems strange that heavier marks have not been made. Indians walk softly and hurt the landscape hardly more than the birds and squirrells ... their more enduring monuments, excepting those wrought on the forests by the fires they made to improve their hunting grounds, vanish in a few centuries.

"How different are most of those (affects) of the white man, especially on the lower gold region... These are the white man's marks made in a few feverish years, to say nothing of mills, fields, villages, scattered hundreds of miles along the flank of the (Sierra Nevada) Range. Long will it be ere these marks are effaced..." (p. 71, 73f)


"We had another visitor from Brown's Flat today, an old Indian woman with a basket on her back. Like our first caller from the village, she got fairly into camp and was standing in plain view when discovered. Her dress was calico rags, far from clean. In every way she seemed sadly unlike Nature's neat well-dressed animals, though living like them on the bounty of the wilderness. Strange that mankind alone is dirty" (p. 78)

Later, lamenting his reliance on bread in his diet, Muir again admires a Native American trait and laments its lack in Anglo Americans: "Like the Indians, we ought to know how to get the starch out of fern and saxifrage stalks, lily bulbs, pine bark, etc. Our (white folks') education has been sadly neglected." (104, 06)


"Soon after my return to camp we received a visit from an Indian come to hunt deer. One that he had killed a short distance from here he was carrying on his back, its legs tied together in an ornamental bunch on his forehead. Throwing down his burden, he gazed stolidly for a few minutes in silent Indian fashion, then cut off eight or ten pounds of venison for us, and begged a little of everything he saw or could think of - - flour, bread, sugar, tobacco, whiskey, needles. We gave a fair price for the meat in flour and sugar and added a few needles. A strangely dirty and irregular life these dark-eyed, dark-haired, half-happy savages lead in this clean wilderness - - starvation and abundance, deathlike calm, indolence, and admirable, indefatigable action succeeding each other in stormy rhythm like winter and summer." (p. 277f).

Approaching Mono Pass:

"I found the blue arctic daisy and purple-flowered bryanthus, the mountain's own darlings, gentle mountaineers face to face with the sky, kept safe and warm by a thousand miracles, seeming always the finer and purer the wilder and stormier their homes. In this fine company sauntering enchanted, taking no need of time, I at length entered the gate of the pass ...


"Just then I was startled by a lot of queer, hairy, muffled creatures coming shuffling, shambling, wallowing toward me as if they had no bones in their bodies... What a picture they made contrasted with the others (flowers, birds, snowy banks) I had just been admiring. When I came up to them, I found that they were only a band of Indians from Mono on their way to Yosemite for a load of acorns. They were wrapped in blankets made of the skins of sage-rabbits. The dirt on some of the faces seemed almost old enough and thick enough to have a geological significance. I tried to pass them without stopping, but they wouldn't let me; forming a dismal circle about me, I was closely besieged while they begged whiskey or tobacco, and it was hard to convince them that I hadn't any. How glad I was to get away from the gray, grim crowd and see them vanish down the trail! Yet it seems sad to feel such desperate repulsion from one's fellow beings. To prefer the society of squirrels and woodchucks to that of our species must surely be unnatura... I must wish them Godspeed, and try to pray and sing with (the poet) Burns, 'It's coming yet, for all that, that man to man, the world over, shall brothers be for all that.'" (293ff)

Muir descends to the foot of the canyon and observes the women of the band gathering wild rye grain.

"A fine squirrelish employment this wild grain gathering seems, and the women were evidently enjoying it, laughing and chattering...Perhaps if I knew them better I should like them better." (303f) (Barnett boldface)

So - - the first phase of the development of Muir's views of Native Americans: the Sierra Nevada, 1869. Sharp, clear, true, honest. But realizing he was missing something. "Perhaps if I knew them better, I should like them better." Are these the views of a racist? We see Muir admiring Native American culture often, even as he contrasts and criticizes his fellow Anglo-americans. We see Muir presenting honest descriptions of Native Americans in the midst of a holocaust, and upon occasion expressing distaste for their disheveled appearance and puzzling behavior. Does this make Muir a racist? I think not, when the full picture of his 1869 summer in the Sierra Nevada is considered. But of course you can make up your own mind, based on the evidence here.


If we can fault Muir for anything in 1869, it was for not realizing, or caring to understand, the historical circumstances that had led to what he observed and recorded. How we yearn to hear Muir say, "A strangely dirty and irregular life these dark-eyed, dark-haired, half-happy savages lead in this clean wilderness -- starvation and abundance, deathlike calm, indolence, and admirable, indefatigable action succeeding each other in stormy rhythm like winter and summer. But of course, these are a once-proud and happy people now in the midst of a shattering holocaust brought on by our brutal Anglo-american theft of their ancient land and murder of their people. Could we survive such a catastrophe? Could we look well-kept in such circumstances?"


But no; Muir does not attain this perspective, at least not in 1869. He was young, and had spent his first months in California as a solitary shepherd in the valley below. That is to say, he was incredibly ignorant of the history of California and the tragic drama still playing out between its holocaust-shattered Native Americans and his fellow Anglo-americans.

And certainly Muir would not have been thinking about how his observations on their appearances might be hurtful to these Native Americans' future descendants reading his words. So Muir was ignorant, and thoughtless of feelings, in some of these 1869 remarks. But surely that does not make him a racist, nor negate his frequent admiration of the Native American ways and his insistence on their being his fellow brothers.


Yet the Sierra Nevada in 1869 is not the whole picture, for Muir. Our judgment as to his purported racism has more to be considered. Much will change when he travels to Alaska in 1879. He is a decade older, and no longer so blithely ignorant. And the Native-American culture he encounters there is pre-holocaust. He spends more time with them, and experiences their culture before it is shattered.


A mere dozen years after America's purchase of Alaska from Russia, Muir made the first of five trips to that raw, young land, in quest of the passion of his life: glaciers! He took a commercial steamer from Seattle as far up the Alaska coast as it went (the rough village of Wrangell), hired a Tlingkit canoe and four paddlers (from different tribes, all), and explored the remote coast north for 400 miles, until the winter storms beat him back. With him was a Presbyterian minister, S. Hall Young, who stopped at dozens of Native American villages to preach and offer education to their youths. Muir came to know his paddlers very well, and the people of the villages at which they stopped.


Just as his experiences with the Native Americans of the Sierra Nevada were profoundly influenced by the status of their culture -- shattered, in that instanceâ€"so his experiences with Alaska's Native Americans were critically influenced by the status of their culture. While the early Russian fur traders had brought diseases of "civilization" to the tribes, with resulting epidemics, and while there were some early gold seekers and missionaries there in 1879, by and large Alaska's Native Americans had not yet experienced the holocaust that had afflicted the Sierra Nevada tribes. (That would come, with the Klondike gold rush of 1896.) Their villages were still extant, for the most part, with the populations pursuing their ancient social economies. Pre-holocaust, then, giving Muir the opportunity to observe and record a Native American culture reasonably similar to what it had been for thousands of years.


Let's listen to what he says of them in his journals (later published in Travels in Alaska; pages refer to the 2002 Modern Library edition).

"The (Indian) women, seated on the steps and platform of the traders' shops (in Wrangell village), could hardly be called loafers, for they had berries to sell, basketfuls of huckleberries, large yellow salmon-berries, and bog raspberries that looked wondrous fresh and clean amid the surrounding squalor [ie., the traders' shops]. After patiently waiting for purchasers until hungry, they ate what they could not sell, and went away to gather more.


"As the day advances, a fleet of canoes may be seen along the shore, all fashioned alike, high and long beak-like prows and sterns, with lines as fine as those of the breast of a duck. What the mustang is to the Mexican vaquero, the canoe is to these coast Indians. They skim along the shores to fish and hunt and trade, or merely to visit their neighbors, for they are sociable, and have family pride remarkably well developed, meeting often to inquire after each other's health, attend potlaches and dances, and gossip concerning coming marriages, births, deaths, etc. Others seem to sail for the pure pleasure of the thing, their canoes decorated with handfuls of the tall purple epilobium... "


"A little excursion to one of the best huckleberry-fields adjacent to Wrangell…In the afternoon, when the baskets were full, all started back to the camp-ground. I was the first to arrive at camp. The rest of the party came in shortly afterwards, singing and humming like heavy-laden bees. It was interesting to note how kindly they held out handfuls of the best berries to the little girl (remaining at camp), who welcomed them all in succession with smiles and merry words that I did not understand. But there was no mistaking the kindliness and serene good nature." (24-27)

Muir visited a "deserted Stickeen village" up the coast from Wrangell, quite possibly a settlement that had been wiped out by disease (brought by Russians or Americans) some years before. "The magnitude of the ruins and the excellence of the workmanship manifest in them was astonishing as belonging to Indians. For example, the first dwelling we visited was about forty feet square, with walls built of planks two feet wide and six inches thick. The ridgepole of yellow cypress was two feet in diameter, forty feet long, and as round and true as if it had been turned in a lathe. The nibble marks of the stone adze were still visible of the wall planks had evidently been hewn out of a whole log, and must have required sturdy deliberation as well as skill. Their geometrical truthfulness was admirable. With the same tools not one in a thousand of our skilled mechanics could do as good work. Compared with it, the bravest work of civilized backwoodsmen is feeble and bungling. The completeness of form, finish, and proportion of these timbers suggested skill of a wild and positive kind."(56) ("Wild" is always a compliment for Muir.)


As in the Sierra Nevada in 1869, Muir contrasts the admirable Native American ways with that of his Anglo-american colleagues, in this case early gold-seekers: "The (miners') taverns along the Cassiar gold trail were the worst I had ever seen, rough shacks with dirt floors, dirt roofs and rough meals. (Note that Muir still finds "dirt" distasteful, whether associated with Anglo-americans or Native Americans.) The meals are all alike - - a potato, a slice of something like bacon, some gray stuff called bread, and a cup of muddy, semi-liquid coffee like that which the California miners call 'slickens' or 'slumgullion.' The bread was terrible and sinful. How the Lord's good wheat could be made into stuff so mysteriously bad is past finding out. The very devil, it would seem, in wicked anger and ingenuity, had been the baker." (68f)


At the end of this lengthy walking tour of the gold mine region: "We arrived at Telegraph Creek, the end of my two-hundred mile walk, about noon. After luncheon I went on down the river to Glenora in a fine canoe owned and manned by Kitty, a stout, intelligent-looking Indian woman, who charged her passengers a dollar for the fifteen-mile trip. Her crew was four Indian paddlers. In the rapids she also plied the paddle, with stout, telling strokes, and a keen-eyed old man, probably her husband, sat high in the stern and steered. All seemed exhilarated as we shot down through the narrow gorge on the rushing, roaring, throttled river, paddling all the more vigorously the faster the speed of the stream, to hold good steering way. The canoe danced lightly amid gray surges and spray as if alive and enthusiastically enjoying the adventure.... In unskillful hands the frail dugout would surely have been wrecked or upset." (69f)


Back on the coast after another several hundred miles by canoe with their Stickeen, Chilcat, and Sitka Native-American paddlers, Muir records this gathering in his journal: "I greatly enjoyed the Indians' camp-fire talk this evening on their ancient customs, how they were taught by their parents ere the whites came among them, their religion, ideas connected with the next world, the stars, plants, the behavior and language of animals under different circumstances, manner of getting a living, etc. When our talk was interrupted by the howling of a wolf on the opposite side of the strait, Kadachan (one of his paddlers) puzzled the minister (Young) with the question 'Have wolves souls?' The Indians believe that they have, giving as foundation for their belief that they are wise creatures who know how to catch seals and salmon by swimming slyly upon them with their heads hidden in a mouthful of grass."(94)


The chieftains of the Native-American groups Muir and Young encountered were almost always highly impressive, in Muir's estimation. Here is his description of remarks by a Chilcat chief following a sermon by Rev. Young offering to educate the tribe's children: "At the last meeting an old white-haired shaman of grave and venerable aspect, with a high wrinkled forehead, big, strong Roman nose and light-colored skin, slowly and with great dignity arose and spoke for the first time:


" 'I am an old man,' he said, 'but I am glad to listen to those strange things you tell, and they may well be true, for what is more wonderful than the flight of birds in the air? I remember the first white man I ever saw. Since that long, long-ago time I have seen many, but never until now have I ever truly known and felt a white man's heart. All the white men I have heretofore met wanted to get something from us. They wanted furs and they wished to pay for them as small a price as possible. They all seemed to be seeking their own good - - not our good. I might say that thorough all my long life I have never until now heard a white man speak. It has always seemed to me while trying to speak to traders and those seeking gold-mines that it was like speaking to a person across a broad stream that was running fast over stones and making so loud a noise that scarce a single word could be heard. But now, for the first time, the Indian and the white man are on the same side of the river, eye to eye, heart to heart. I have always loved my people. I have taught them and ministered to them as well as I could. Hereafter, I will keep silent and listen to the good words of the missionaries, who know God and the places we go to when we die so much better than I do.' " (129f)

Towards the end of his trip, Muir sums up his experiences among his men and in the dozens of villages he visited:

"The most striking characteristic of these people is their serene dignity in circumstances that to us would be novel and embarrassing. Even the little children behave with natural dignity, come to the white men when called, and restrain their wonder at the strange prayers, hymn-singing, etc. This evening an old woman fell asleep in the meeting and began to snore; and though both old and young were shaking with suppressed mirth, they evidently took great pains to conceal it. It seems wonderful to me that these so-called savages can make one feel at home in their families. In good breeding, intelligence, and skill in accomplishing whatever they try to do with tools, they seem to me to rank above most of our uneducated white laborers. I have never yet seen a child ill-used, even to the extent of an angry word. Scolding, so common a curse in civilization, is not known here at all. On the contrary the young are fondly indulged without being spoiled." (104f) (Barnett boldface and italics)

It is shortly after his return from this trip that Muir confronts the Colonel involved in California's "Indian Extermination" campaign at John and Mary Swett's dinner party (see above), barking to his face that the soldier was engaged in a "mean and brutal policy," that he should be "ashamed to carry it."


This is the evidence, then. John Muir a racist against the Native Americans of Alaska or the Sierra Nevada? I think not. His honesty in portraying the appearances and manners of the Sierra Nevada tribes in the midst of their holocaust might give the impression of racism to those who know little of Muir or what the Native Americans were experiencing. But when Muir's thoughts and actions are more fully known, it is clear.


John Muir was not a racist, but to the contrary an admirer and staunch defender of North America's Native Americans, all the while honestly portraying the terrible burden they endured during their Sierra Nevada holocaust, and its affect upon them. Isolated instances in his journals or private letters when he occasionally expresses distaste for the appearances or manner of the holocaust-scarred Sierra Nevada Native Americans cannot be taken out of the much broader context of his many expressions of admiration of the Sierra Nevada and Alaska tribes; his touching enthusiasm for Alaska's Native American life, especially; his insistence that Native Americans were fully human "brothers;" and his heated in-the-face defense of California's Native Americans to a U.S. Army Colonel involved in exterpating them.


His stance is all the more striking by virtue of its rarity at the time. In 1869, he was virtually alone among public figures in his insistence of the admirable qualities of Native American culture, and of that people's right to be considered as fellow humans, "brothers" even. In 1879, he had been joined by only one other public figure, Helen Hunt Jackson, an Easterner whose sympathy and understanding of the great injustices perpetrated on California's original inhabitants led to her 1881 book, A Century of Dishonor. When the book, sent to every member of the U.S. Congress, was overwhelmingly ignored, Jackson recast her "message" in the form of a popular novel, 1884's Ramona, written in a frenzy by the dying Jackson.


This book was a great success financially, spawning more than half a century of "Ramona Festivals" in southern California - - but for all the wrong reasons. The plight and injustices of the southern California Native Americans depicted in the novel were shrugged off by the reading public, which instead was entranced by the romance of the Californio culture of Spanish haciendas and ranches during the 1820s and 1830s (the object of the early 20th century festivals). Considering Ramona a failure, Jackson died in San Francisco the year after the novel's publication, on the very night that Muir called upon her home there to inquire after her health.


Muir and Jackson were joined by only one other Anglo-american in the late 19th century who spoke up for California's Native Americans. In 1885, the year that Jackson died, a young Harvard graduate named Charles Lummis arrived in Los Angeles (by foot, from Chicago). He promptly founded successful magazines (Land of Sunshine, then Out West) celebrating the Southwest (a term he coined). In both his magazines and frequent lawsuits, Lummis sought to protect the region's Native Americans, and initiated programs to provide education and practical skills for their youths. Muir was a constant contributor of funds to these endeavors, and you can find Muir's signature in the visitors' book of Lummis' preserved home, El Alisal, north of today's downtown Los Angeles, in Montecito Heights.


A century on, many of California's Native Americans still struggle with the legacy of the holocaust their people endured. But many have parlayed their courage and intelligence to successfully establish themselves in the Anglo-american culture which took over their old homeland, and they have prospered. To all of these descendants of a time of terrible injustice and tragedy, and in recognition of the too-rare admiration and respect extended to them by John Muir, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Charles Lummis, this essay is respectfully dedicated.


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Through the Heart of the South: John Muir's 1867 Thousand Mile Walk

(Note: when I published my book on John Muir (Earth Wisdom) in 2016, little did I imagine he might ever stand accused of racism. When I heard of such an accusation with respect to Native Americans, I re-read the numerous biographies and all his journal entries I had consulted for my 2016 book. The results of that investigation (John Muir: Racist or Admirer of Native Americans?) were presented in a talk to the 2018 History Conference of the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association, published as blogs on my website on January 23 and 24 of 2019, and later in the John Muir Exhibit of the Sierra Club website (sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/life/racist-or-admirer-of-native-americans-raymond-bennett.aspx).

    The same accusation of racism, now directed with respect to Blacks, especially as revealed on Muir's 1867 journey through the war-shattered South, has emerged recently.  I am now returning to the source materials once again to thoroughly and carefully investigate this new charge.  Meanwhile, my 2016 book's chapter on that journey, presented below, can serve as an initial overview of the topic, since it treats of his experiences with both Blacks and Whites.)


When in September of 1867 he scribbled "John Muir, Earth-Planet, Universe" on the opening page of his journal, Muir clearly saw his upcoming walk from Indiana to Florida's Gulf of Mexico as something special.  Even so, he could not have imagined it would spark the creation of a new way of looking at the world, a stance that a century later would provide the best hope for saving human civilization from the gravest threat of its entire history on the planet.


Muir had dropped out of the University of Wisconsin after two years, fascinated with botany and geology, but restless.  He had earlier spent months "botanizing" in Canada (prompting some in later years to accuse him of dodging the Civil War draft, a charge stoutly denied by others).  To keep himself in bread during his botanical studies, he had progressed from threshing wheat by hand in the summers, at which his strength and endurance were remarkable, to working in the country's largest carriage manufacturer, in Indianapolis. 


At this last enterprise his skill and sharp suggestions on efficiency had earned him rapid promotion and the offer of a partnership—until tragedy struck.  While tightening a machine belt with a file, the point of the file flipped and pierced his right eye, robbing him of his sight (as well as a considerable amount of aqueous humor, which he watched puddle in his palm, horrified, with his remaining eye).  Muir feared he would be blind in the injured eye, and resolved during his recuperation that he would waste no more time "on the inventions of man, and devote myself to the inventions of God," by which he meant God's creation of the natural world.


To Muir's surprise and relief, most of the sight of his eye returned within several months.  His resolve to devote himself wholeheartedly to exploring God's creation was unchanged, however, and he decided to introduce himself to the plants of the southern U.S. and then to press on to the Amazon basin.  On the second day of September, 1867, Muir walked across the bridge spanning the Ohio River from Jeffersonville, Indiana to Louisville, Kentucky, "joyful and free," he tells us in his journal.  He traversed the city without speaking a word to anyone, and on the southern outskirts spread a map before him.  "My plan was simply to push on in a general southward direction by the wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find, promising the greatest extent of virgin forest…rejoicing in splendid visions of pines and palms and tropic flowers in glorious array."


Thus began a walk which would cover 1,000 miles, through Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, ending two months later with Muir flat on his back with malaria for three further months in a sawmill outside the Gulf hamlet of  Cedar Keys, Florida.  Muir traveled remarkably light: his small shoulder bag contained (beside his journal) a towel, soap, comb, brush, single change of underwear, map of the South, three slim books (Burns' Poetry, Milton's Paradise Lost, the New Testament) and one thick one (Wood's Botany, for keying out plants).  He also carried a plant press on his back, a light device of straps, wood slats, and rough-paper sheets with which to flatten and dry the many plants he collected, and periodically sent to his brother in Wisconsin for keeping. 


Though this luggage seems singularly light to us, in fact it was more than Muir would carry on his subsequent rambles throughout the length of California's Sierra Nevada mountains, where his ever-present journal, a box of matches, and several loaves of bread typically comprised his entire load, disdaining even a blanket or overcoat.


True to his resolve to immerse himself in the forests of the South, Muir avoided towns, passing through only 22 his entire journey.  He spent roughly half his nights indoors, in the attics of taverns or spare rooms of scattered farmhouses.  The remainder of his nights were spent on the ground under the stars, with mosquitoes buzzing around him and beetles scurrying over his limbs.  Food was many times given freely to him, usually cornbread and bacon, sometimes after suspicious questioning.    But hunger was never far from Muir, and often enough desperately present.  He averaged about 25 miles per day, though one day in Georgia, he writes, he "traveled to-day more than forty miles without dinner (lunch) or supper.  No family would receive me, so I had to push on to Augusta."


Muir's principal object in his thousand-mile walk was encountering the forests and plants of the South.  Here he was not disappointed.  "Far the grandest of all Kentucky plants are her noble oaks," he proclaimed early on. "They are the master existences of her exuberant forests. Here is the Eden, the paradise of oaks."


In the Cumberland mountains of Tennessee, Muir observes "There is nothing more eloquent in Nature than a mountain stream, and this is the first I ever saw. Its banks are luxuriantly peopled with rare and lovely flowers and overarching trees, making one of Nature's coolest and most hospitable places. Every tree, every flower, every ripple and eddy of this lovely stream seemed solemnly to feel the presence of the great Creator…Near this steam I spent some joyous time in a grand rock-dwelling full of mosses, birds, and flowers. Most heavenly place I ever entered." 


It was in Florida that Muir most anticipated encountering new, exotic subtropical plants.  He saw his first palmetto in a grassy opening on the edge of swampy woods.  "A plain gray shaft, round as a broom-handle, and a crown of varnished channeled leaves…whether rocking and rustling in the wind or poised thoughtful and calm in the sunshine, it has a power of expression not excelled by any plant high or low that I have met in my whole walk thus far…They tell us that plants are perishable, soulless creatures, that only man is immortal, etc.; but this, I think, is something that we know very nearly nothing about. Anyhow, this palm was indescribably impressive and told me grander things than I ever got from human priest."


This first of Muir's lifetime of "saunters" was unusual in that he regularly encountered people throughout the journey.  His descriptions of the people of the South, Black and White, are perceptive and entertaining, and give A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, his journal entries assembled by his Sierra Club friend William Frederic Bade after Muir's death, a different feel than Muir's other writings, as well as a valuable rendering of the South in the near aftermath of the Civil War. 


Muir made this walk through the heart of the South a scant two years after the cessation of formal hostilities.  The region remained wracked by the war, the economy shattered, men solitary and in bands roaming the countryside murdering travelers for food and whatever money they might carry.  Repeatedly Muir was warned by those he encountered, being assured that his life was in jeopardy.  And repeatedly Muir ignored the good advice, and set off for yet another day through the ravaged countryside.  The only danger that Muir did not face and survive was malaria, but that felled him only after he had reached the Gulf. 


Early in the trip, on a level sandstone plateau amongst desolate fields in the Cumberland mountains, Muir towards sundown came in sight of ten men watching his progress closely.  "They all were mounted on rather scrawny horses, and all wore long hair hanging down on their shoulders.  Evidently they belonged to the most irreclaimable of the guerrilla bands who, long accustomed to plunder, deplored the coming of peace…Without halting even for a moment, I advanced rapidly with long strides as though I intended to walk through the midst of them.  When I got within a rod or so I looked up in their faces and smilingly bade them 'Howdy.'  Stopping never an instant, I turned to one side and walked around them to get on the road again, and kept on without venturing to look back or betray the slightest fear of being robbed…I was not followed, however, probably because the plants projecting from my plant press made them believe that I was a poor herb doctor."


Muir's closest brush with violence came near the end of his trip, in Florida.  "In a lonely, swampy place in the woods, I met a large, muscular, brawny young negro, who eyed me with glaring, wistful curiosity…He inquired where I came from, where I was going, and what brought me to such a wild country, where I was liable to be robbed, and perhaps killed.  'Oh, I am not afraid of any one robbing me,' I said, 'for I don't carry anything worth stealing.'  'Yes,' said he, 'but you can't travel without money.' 


"I started to walk on, but he blocked my way.  Then I noticed that he was trembling, and it flashed upon me all at once that he was thinking of knocking me down in order to rob me.  After glaring at my pockets as if searching for weapons, he stammered in a quavering voice 'Do you carry shooting-irons?'  His motives, which I ought to have noted sooner, now were apparent to me.  Though I had no pistol, I instinctively threw my hand back to my pistol pocket and, with my eyes fixed on his, I marched up close to him and said, 'I allow people to find out if I am armed or not.'  Then he quailed, stepped aside, and allowed me to pass, for fear of being shot.  This was evidently a narrow escape."


Muir navigated the inherent dangers of solitary travel in the immediate post-war South through luck, bravado, and a strict prohibition of camp fires in his many nights in the open, so as not to advertise his presence to "prowling mischief makers."  He was conscientious, though, to note the numerous instances of generosity and kindness to him by both Whites and Blacks.  On 6 September, Muir "Overtook an old negro driving an ox team. Rode with him a few miles and had some interesting chat concerning war, wild fruits of the woods, et cetera…I asked him if he would like a renewal of these sad war times, when his flexible face suddenly calmed, and he said with intense earnestness, 'Oh, Lo'd, want no mo wa, Lo'd no.'  Many of these Kentucky negroes are shrewd and intelligent, and when warmed upon a subject that interests them, are eloquent in no mean degree."


Regarding the White folks he met, Muir praises their courtesy but does not overlook the common prejudice towards Blacks.  He comments on "that open, unconstrained cordiality which is characteristic of the better class of Southern people." In Georgia, he "was received at the house of Dr. Perkins…Heard long recitals of war happenings, discussion of the slave question, and Northern politics; a thoroughly characteristic Southern family, refined in manners and kind, but immovably prejudiced on everything connected with slavery."


Despite the bleakness of the landscape and society, Muir was ever ready to appreciate the humor in a situation.  In the Cumberland mountains, after much back-and-forth amongst "roads (which) never seem to proceed with any fixed purpose, but wander as if lost," Muir "reached the house of a negro driver, with whom I put up for the night. Received a good deal of knowledge which may be of use should I ever be a negro teamster."


And "In Murphy (North Carolina) I was hailed by the sheriff who could not determine by my colors and rigging to what country or craft I belonged. Since the war, every other stranger in these lonely parts is supposed to be a criminal, and all are objects of curiosity or apprehensive concern. After a few minutes' conversation with this chief man of Murphy I was pronounced harmless, and invited to his house, where for the first time since leaving home I found a house decked with flowers and vines, clean within and without, and stamped with the comforts of culture and refinement in all its arrangements."


Accustomed as he was to the hard-working, tidy immigrant community of his youth in Wisconsin, to which his family had emigrated from Scotland when he was twelve years old, Muir's frequent encounters with back-country living in the South, particularly in the mountains, did not impress him.


"All the machines of Kentucky and Tennessee are far behind the age," he observes.  "There is scarce a trace of that restless spirit of speculation and invention so characteristic of the North. But one way of doing things obtains here, as if laws had been passed making attempts at improvement a crime…This is the most primitive country I have seen, primitive in everything. The remotest hidden parts of Wisconsin are far in advance of the mountain regions of Tennessee and North Carolina.".  He recounts a philosopher in the Kentucky hills mocking the uppity ways of an ambitious neighbor:  "'There's a place back heah,' said my worthy entertainer, 'whar there's a mill-house, an' a store-house, an' a still-house, an' a spring-house, an' a blacksmith shop—all in the same yard!  Cows too, an' heaps of big gals a-milkin' them.'" Such a thing!


Given his time amongst such places and peoples, Muir particularly relished his days in the natural beauty of trees and streams.  Describing Bonaventure Graveyard outside Savannah, Muir observes that "You hear the song of birds, cross a small stream, and are with Nature in the grand old forest graveyard, so beautiful that almost any sensible person would choose to dwell here with the dead rather than with the lazy, disorderly living."


Muir's low point on his thousand-mile walk occurred in Savannah.  He arrived with a dollar and a half in his pocket, and eagerly checked the post office for an expected money draft from his brother—it had not arrived.  "Feel dreadfully lonesome and poor. Went to the meanest looking lodging-house that I could find, on account of its cheapness."  The money package did not arrive the next day, nor the four next days.  Muir could not afford even the "meanest looking" hostel again, and had noted numerous menacing bands of ex-slaves checking out travelers in the city and its environs.  Where to sleep with reasonable expectation of avoiding robbery or worse?  He hit upon the Bonaventure Graveyard outside of town, where "no superstitious prowling mischief maker dares venture for fear of haunting ghosts."


The graveyard was Muir's resting place for five nights, where "On rising (in the morning) I found that my head had been resting on a grave, and though my sleep had not been quite so sound as that of the person below, I arose refreshed, and looking about me, the morning sunbeams pouring through the oaks and gardens dripping with dew, the beauty displayed was so glorious and exhilarating that hunger and care seemed only a dream." 


After several days subsisting on a few crackers in the morning and evening, though, Muir became weak and dizzy.  Unable to secure employment of any sort in the town, he would trudge from graveyard to post office each morning, only to be disappointed.  By the sixth morning, he was hallucinating. "I was becoming faint, and in making the journey to the town was alarmed to find myself growing staggery and giddy.  The ground ahead seemed to be rising up in front of me, and the little streams in the ditches on the sides of the road seemed to be flowing up hill.  Then I realized that I was becoming dangerously hungry." 


Finally the funds arrived.  "Gladly I pocketed my money, and had not gone along the street more than a few rods before I met a very large negro woman with a tray of gingerbread, in which I immediately invested some of my new wealth, and walked rejoicingly, munching along the street, making no attempt to conceal the pleasure I had in eating.  Then, still hunting for more food, I found a sort of eating-place in a market and had a large regular meal on top of the gingerbread!  Thus my 'marching through Georgia' terminated handsomely in a jubilee of bread."


Muir had originally planned to press on from the Gulf of Mexico to South America, forge Humboldt-like through the tropical forest to a tributary of the Amazon, and raft down the great river's entire length.  Muir himself in later years acknowledged that the idea was foolish; fortunately he was not able to find a ship to take him to South America, and settled instead on California, to see the Sierra Nevada's recently discovered Yosemite Valley. Muir more than reached his botanical goals on his thousand mile walk through the South, as he encountered, keyed, pressed and collected hundreds of new plants, reveling in their splendor. 


Reading Muir's journal entries during the ramble, one is struck by two things.  First, of course, is how foolish Muir was to trudge solitary through the American South but two years after the devastation of the Civil War.  Indeed, by his own account he was frequently in real danger of his life.  Only luck and his steely courage in tight situations brought him through.


Second, one is struck by how winning Muir's ways were with the vast majority of the people he met, White and Black.  With the Blacks, he is usually freely given food and lodging and enjoys the company.  With the Whites, sometimes the same is the case, though often there is initial refusal and considerable questioning and conversation before his acceptance.  This ability of Muir to attract and "win over" his fellows was a constant throughout his life, from post-bellum South to, later, the salons of San Francisco, New York, and London. 


That there were limits to Muir's likability and luck is clear, though.  The marauding bands of Whites and Blacks, thick in all the lands he traversed, were immune to Muir's charm.  He recognized this and avoided the dangers, for the most part, by eschewing camp fires, sleeping in a graveyard, and brazenly bluffing his way through the threat if all else failed. 


His journal entries reveal that the experience of wandering freely through new lands and societies, often braving danger, hunger, and loneliness, opened Muir to perspectives and possibilities not previously considered in his 29 years of life.  To a worldview, indeed, not previously well-explored anywhere in the West. 


In Muir's journal of this thousand-mile walk we find startling observations and thoughts regarding death, the nature of creation, the rights and roles of alligators, the place of humans in the world, and man's curious concept of God as "a civilized, law-abiding gentleman in favor either of a republican form of government or a limited monarchy."  


We will consider these radical, new views in later chapters.  Suffice it for now to note that his long ramble to the Gulf opened Muir's eyes and his mind, and took him a giant first step toward a way of viewing the world unknown in the Western tradition beyond hints and anomalies.  A way of viewing the world that would, over a century later, provide a ray of hope to rescue the human enterprise from an existential danger it was signally failing to resolve.



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Message to Humanity from a novel Coronavirus in the year 2025

 Guest blog by Palo Alto pathologist Mahendra Ranchod; see note at end


Date: January 2025


A few years ago, one of my cousins traveled around the world, trying to draw attention to problems facing our planet. She caused a great deal of panic, changed your life-styles, made millions sick and caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. But after the pandemic, life went on as usual.


We have a way of changing our coats, our surface proteins, so I now emerge as a novel virus – Covid-25 in your lexicon – the cause of another pandemic. I hope to cause more havoc than my cousin, Covid-19, but I don't think I will achieve my goal. You may think that coronaviruses are malevolent but we are not. We are simply asking you to change the way you treat planet earth.


You call us simple structures, non-living organisms, just strands of RNA wrapped in a coat of protein, but we have been around for more than a billion years and we have seen changes you have not. So, let me give you my perspective: The main problem is that there are just too many of you. Your species, Homo sapiens, is more than eight billion strong, and if left to your own devices, you will soon be ten billion.


"Well, why is that a problem?" you ask. "Look at us, we've only been around for 200,000 years, and unlike other primates, we learned to use our hands. We discovered the power of fire; we made tools from wood, stone and metals; we learned to farm; we found ways to utilize resources around us – forests, rivers, oceans and riches buried in the earth - and we have become masters of the planet within just a few hundred years. We have traveled to the moon, we create machines that work for us, we write books, we compose glorious music, we build impressive buildings and our electronic devices allow us to do everything so much faster than anyone imagined. Isn't that progress? Would you prefer us to remain hunter-gatherers?"


No, I'm not asking you to be stuck in time, but my family and I are asking that you take a fresh look at the planet and its resources. Your species has to face up to the challenges of its success. The planet can't support all eight billion of you, especially if you all aspire to live like privileged Americans. Your species, sapiens, is present in every habitable corner of the planet, and when you find new territory, you claim it, you change it and - knowingly or unknowingly - you displace or destroy other species.


You don't understand that the planet supports a complex biosystem. It wasn't always that way; it took more than four billion years of evolution to produce this wonderfully complex world. Why don't you spend a few minutes contemplating the complexity and beauty of everything around you? Have you seen a dazzling white glacier calve? Have you wondered how a tiny seed can grow into a majestic oak? Have you watched a Spiny Orb spin its tensile web? Have you watched how industriously the Masked Weaver builds its nest? Have you wondered how the fusion of a sperm and an egg – two single cells - could possibly give rise to an amazingly complex human being? Isn't everything around you impossibly marvelous, isn't everything around you astonishing? Are you willing to destroy all this?


"Hold on, hold on, coronavirus, I think you're making too many assumptions," replied President Xi Guanmian, who happened to be visiting the National Institute of Virology in Beijing, my current abode. "We co-exist peacefully with everyone in the world. I agree we've made mistakes, but we have a host of new technologies that will solve our problems."


Think again, Mr. President. This is a problem caused by humans. This is a human problem that requires a human solution. Technology will mitigate some of your challenges but technology is not the solution. I'll say it again: there are just too many of you, too many humans. If everyone in the world wants to live the life of modern man, you will have to reduce the world's population by half. Frightening, isn't it? How on earth will you do that?


I can assure you that my family and other members of our community, like the Influenza family, have tried to help. The Flu family did a great job in 1918 - an event you call the Spanish flu - but we are concerned that the balance of power has shifted and that we can no longer make enough of a dent in your numbers. Even though we change our protein coats every year, like Halloween costumes, your scientists see through our garb; they spot us much too quickly, decipher our RNA code and our protein structure, and within months, devise sophisticated PCR tests to find where we lurk. And your concerted efforts to produce a vaccine limits the time we can reign freely.


So, President Xi, if we can't help you and your species, how will you cut the human population to four billion? You could do it with nuclear weapons, but that that would be too dirty, too much collateral damage, just too many unwanted side effects.

President Xi thought for a while and said, "My government has a plan but I can't share it with you because you and your friends travel all over the world and I doubt you can keep a secret."


Well, President, I don't have time for an extended debate because I have a job to do: I have to create havoc around the world. But before I leave, let me tell you why my family is so angry, and how we see your future.


Your species is arrogant. You think you have the right to change this planet for your benefit -    and for your benefit alone. Look at what you have done: You pollute the air; you dump industrial wastes into rivers; your indestructible plastics strangle life in the oceans; you burn and cut down forests for personal need and corporate greed; you shrink animal habitats, making it impossible for birds and butterflies to complete their annual migrations; and you melt glaciers and the arctic cap because you love gas-guzzling cars more than you care about polar bears and arctic seals. I can go on and on but you get the gist of what I'm saying. Your species can do amazing things but you don't respect the planet enough. This is the only planet we have. There is only one of its kind. Don't ruin it.


The President did not like being lectured to; he was accustomed to being in charge. His allergies were bothering him again so he raised his faceguard, extracted two tissues from a box offered by his trusted aide and wiped his leaky nose. "Well listen to me, corona-what's-your-name, I think you are a pessimist, and besides, you have no right to talk to me in this demeaning way. I am president of China. I'm leaving."


Just one more minute of your time, Mr. President. Quite frankly, I see a dismal future for your species. I see a great deal of pain - not in the distant future - but in your lifetime - and climate change will be the catalyst.  I see rising oceans swamping coastal areas; I see frightening fires and destructive, unseasonable storms; I see extinction of more and more species; I see wholesale extinction of bats and bees, your pollinators; I see a desperate shortage of food and fresh water; I see hordes of migrating humans seeking refuge - only to be turned away by the military might of the haves; I see armed conflicts between countries of the world because your species cannot understand that earth's resources should be shared by all.


Here is one possible scenario. The disastrous effects of climate change may cause a sharp decline in sapiens, but the society that emerges from this catastrophe will not be egalitarian.  There will be an ugly division between the haves and the have-nots. A minority - the elite - will have total power, live in fortified enclaves and enjoy what remains of the earth's resources. The vast majority will be disenfranchised and …


"Stop! Stop!" interrupted President Xi, "Stop your histrionic rantings, stop this ridiculous nonsense."  The President did not like this sort of talk; it reminded him of feudal China, the China of his great-grandparents. President Xi was angry; his plan for a brief imperial visit to this top-secret, level-4, Biohazard laboratory was being thwarted by this pesky non-entity. He was going to make a speedy exit.


Covid-25 took a deep breath. Just one more thing, Mr. President. My family is not concerned about what happens in the next two or three decades. We are more concerned about what will happen by the end of this century.

The President's attention suddenly perked up and he asked, "What's that?"


The planet will survive. It will be different. There may be no mammals on earth but some insect species may survive. Life has a way of going on. There will be a new cycle of evolution.

"Impossible, what rubbish. I'm going," shouted Xi, and with that he stalked off in a huff, little knowing that one of my companions had made her way into the President's nasal cavity, and that he would be the first victim of the 2025 pandemic.


Contributor Mahendra Ranchod is a pathologist in Palo Alto, CA. His concern for the future of our planet, and frustration at our tardiness in addressing the most important issue of our time, impelled him to some "emergency gardening" during which he imagined the dialogue given above.  Used with his permission.








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Making Sense of Covid-19 Deaths

Herein a drama in three acts, playing out over the course of a week.  We begin with a singular editorial in the prestigious Economist magazine.  Then a response from Barnett, written soon after the editorial.  We end with pertinent quotations from various others that I noticed over the ensuing week.  Enjoy, if you can.


Act One, the Stimulus (Economist, 25 April 2020)

"Connectedness (between climate change and Covid-19), though, is no excuse for sloppy thinking. The two scourges are not usefully treated as the same problem—of excessive economic growth clogging the sky as it encroaches on the wildernesses where new pathogens lurk. There is no single rethinking or rejection of the way humans live today that will solve both…the pandemic is not, as some say, 'nature's reset'. Such thinking easily slips into the misanthropy that can lead environmentalists to see people themselves as the problem."


Act Two, the Response (Barnett)

The hundreds of thousands—and counting—deaths due to the Covid-19 pandemic teach us about how humans must live on this planet, if we know how to see it.  This latest disease leaped into human society from our incessant push into wild areas heretofore relatively untouched by humanity.


 Covid-19 is merely the latest (and certainly not the last) disease transmitted to humans from animals (zoonoses) this past century: 1918 Spanish flu (the first H1N1 virus pandemic, claiming 50 million victims); 1981 HIV/AIDS; 1993 Hantavirus; 2002 SARS coronavirus; 2009 swine flu (the second H1N1 pandemic); 2012 MERS coronavirus; and 2013 and 2017 Ebola virus (with a 50% mortality rate).  Virtually all these diseases were transmitted from wild animals into whose habitats humans had recently spread with greater frequency. Worldwide we see the relentless advance of chain saws and bulldozers transforming forests and savannas into small farms or, more likely, palm oil or avocado plantations, exposing us to pathogens for which we are unprepared. 


How many such zoonotic viruses might leap to humans in the coming months and years?  Evidence suggests Covid-19 came from a species of bats.  There are some 1,400 species of bats worldwide, mainly in the tropics, each with between one and five types of coronavirus in their populations.  (By comparison, humans have 7 varieties of coronavirus, counting the recent Covid-19.)  Accounting for probable overlap among the bat species, UC Davis researcher Tracy Goldstein and colleagues, in a 2017 study of bats in 20 African, South American, and Asian countries, calculated that more than 3,000 varieties of coronavirus are circulating in bats alone—and potentially able to leap into encroaching human populations. This number does not count coronavirus types in rodents and primates, also vectors of epidemic diseases into humans. And it does not look at other virus types, such as the distinctive Ebolavirus. The next pandemic, clearly, is only a question of when, not if.  And the wait will not likely be long.


Simultaneously, our ballooning human population and urban density provide the perfect breeding ground for new pathogens to flourish.  Just as a vast field packed with corn plants is the optimal condition for crop pathogens that can extract a living from that organism, so dense cities dotting the countryside provide irresistible conditions for diseases able to thrive and extract their own living from packed masses of Homo sapiens.  Yes, to viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites, humans are just wonderfully large bundles of food and energy, waiting to be harvested.  And we could hardly manage ourselves any better to entice and provide easy access of ourselves to these organisms with which we share the earth—like it or not.


But these are superficial lessons, as superficial as demonstrations against oil corporations or pleas to control human population size.  When we dig deeper, we see that the fundamental, root cause of these pandemics is the same as that producing climate change and plunging biodiversity of insects, whales, and other life forms.  Underlying all these phenomena that are about to bring the human endeavor to a screeching, horrifying halt on this planet is a single factor: the prevailing view that humans are central, that humans are superior to all other creatures, that humans can drill, mine, dig, dam, transform, burn, destroy, kill, and otherwise plunder the planet for profit without any consequences that we can't fix.  All this is OK because we alone are godlike and given the planet to exploit.  It says so in the Bible and the Koran; look it up.  And for most of human civilization for the past 4,500 years, this view integrally includes the conviction that our brief lives here on earth really don't matter much, certainly not as important as an eternal life we will have in heaven after our earthly deaths.  Whatever we do to the earth is likewise not very important, because it is our eternal afterlife in a transcendent, other world that really counts. 


Though we may not consciously be aware of this underlying human-centered worldview, it is a given, a way of interpreting our world, a widespread agreement that has underlain and permeated human society and all our lives for thousands upon thousands of years.  Like fish immersed in water, we unconsciously take it for granted and don't dream of questioning it. It gives rise to the ravenous consumer society that today engulfs the world.  It blinds us to the inherent contradiction and impossibility of an economic system that assumes—that is predicated upon—perpetual, infinite economic growth on a planet that is clearly finite in its resources.  Capitalism is transparently a Ponzi scheme, that can only survive by continuous and increasing destruction of the earth.  So long as humans were a relatively minor component on the planet, we could persist in these contradictory, destructive views and the myriad practices emerging from them. 


No longer.  Now we are seven billion, on schedule to be 9 billion by mid-century, and 12 billion by the advent of the next century.  We have destroyed 95% of the rainforests from which we originally emerged onto the savannas.  A 2018 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that of the incredible, swarming hordes of wild mammals on the planet's land and sea when the human mammal began its vaunted "civilization," 83% of the land mammals have since been lost, and 80% of the marine mammals.  Today, by biomass, humans comprise 36% of the world's mammals, our livestock another 60%.  A mere 4% of mammal biomass today are wild mammals; many of these (including tigers and African elephants) are destined for the final insult from humans—extinction—within the next half century.  Our fellow mammals no longer share the planet with us; we dominate it, and they have been decisively shoved aside and soon virtually all will be gone. 


Modern science is a relatively recent phenomenon.  In just the past two centuries it has utilized its impartial, fact-based, experimental mode of investigation to establish that this entire human-centered, transcendent worldview is nonsense.  A multitude of scientific findings tell us—if we have eyes to see and ears to hear—that in fact humans are not central.  That humans are merely one part of an integral whole, all dependent on vast biogeochemical cycles with critical input from bacteria, the water cycles linking fresh water with the oceans, and plants converting sunshine into the nutrients upon which all life is based.  Without our fellow creatures and the planetary cycles linking us to them, we could not have evolved and cannot continue to live.  Life—ours included—is not human-centered; it is, in fact, earth-centered (or Gaiacentric, using the ancient Greek word for the earth). 


Though these facts are crystal clear, the overwhelming mass of humanity refuses to see.  None are so blind as those who will not see, as the prophet Jeremiah and the satirist Jonathon Swift remind us.  Yet some recent observers have broken free of the constraints of the human-centered worldview to notice how the world really works.  Pope Francis: "Our efforts at education will be inadequate and ineffectual unless we strive to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature…We do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way."  And journalist Naomi Klein:  "The task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis."


Just so. But this realization on the part of a few has not been matched by any serious, consequential steps to challenge the transcendent, human-centered worldview, and instead promote the acceptance of a worldview based on reality.  Pope Francis correctly saw that education would be key, but nothing has in actuality been done, by him, by mainline environmental organizations, by world governments, or the curriculum of our great universities.  Nothing.  This disconnect between the perception of the underlying problem, and action to remedy it with the articulation and adoption of a new worldview that reflects the reality of human life on the planet, accounts for our current predicament.  No number of demonstrations or boycotts or pleas for divestment will be sufficiently consequential to effect real change so long as the underlying worldview permeating our view of reality is unchanged and, incredibly, unchallenged.  Like fish we are doomed to swim immersed in the water of our old, nonsensical worldview, and nothing important changes—or can change, so long as the old worldview reigns.  Victories will be small and the lumbering inertia of the old worldview will continue to steal the earth from our children.


What would it take to change the transcendent, human-centered worldview?  A vast educational campaign that would articulate the old worldview, mercilessly point out its fallacies and its contradiction of reality, and proceed to forcefully articulate a new earth-centered worldview, its extensive proof provided by science (and by our current catastrophes), and the absolute necessity to adopt the new worldview post-haste and model our actions upon it. 


Easy to say.  Evidently, difficult to do.  But there is no other approach fundamental enough to evade the tsunami of death and worldwide destruction bearing down upon human civilization today.  No one cognizant of science and the way the real world operates can pretend that Covid-19 will not be succeeded by another pandemic—and that not so very far in the future.  The current and impending catastrophes of climate change have been well-catalogued. So long as the human-centered, transcendent worldview is unchallenged and unchanged, all our well-meaning demonstrations, speeches, goals, lofty resolutions, and plans for the future are utterly meaningless.  No—worse than meaningless, because they fool us into thinking that we can handle climate change and pandemics and plummeting biodiversity without fundamentally changing how we perceive reality—our worldview. 


Three decades have passed since climate crisis was announced in a 1988 congressional hearing by Goddard Institute director James Hansen, and spelled out the next year in The End of Nature by Bill McKibben.  Mr McKibben evidently hoped that simply penning a clear explanation of the problem would inspire people to action to solve it.  Thirty one years later, Mr. McKibben is still organizing demonstrations and getting arrested, and has galvanized the entire climate change movement. Alas, viewed starkly, the movement has made remarkably little serious, concrete headway on the national or international level—due in large part to a mute acceptance of the old, prevailing worldview.


I assayed a first articulation of a comprehensive, earth-centered worldview (the "Immanent worldview") in my 2016 book on John Muir (Earth Wisdom: John Muir, Accidental Taoist, Charts Humanity's Only Future on a Changing Planet).  There I also showed that certain facets of the Chinese religion/philosophy of Taoism contained virtually the same worldview as Muir indicated in his journals.  (And accounted for the surprising similarity; both Muir and the mountain-dwelling Taoists came to it by the same method, as described in the ancient Tao Te Ching:  "How do I know the world is like this? By looking!").  Now I am finishing a book on Mesolithic and Neolithic human cultures in Europe and China (The Gardeners of Gaia), which argues (persuasively, I think) that the same earth-centered, immanent worldview ruled there for ten thousand years prior to the advent of the Bronze and Iron Ages. 


Two books by an obscure California scientist clearly isn't nearly enough to do the job, though.  I freely admit that I plug away more in the spirit of the Roman Catholic confessional phrase (used also by Marx in 1875) Dixi et salvavi animam meam, "I have spoken and saved my soul," literally, though in my case, more like "I've said my piece, and assuaged my spirit."  But perhaps, just perhaps between these efforts and those of the very many good people (foremost among them the above-mentioned Bill McKibben, for whom I have enormous admiration) struggling to save humanity from its rush to destruction, maybe we'll be able to save a remnant to rebuild human culture along more sustainable lines.  That is my prayer, for my kids and grandkids. 


Act Three, Input from others the ensuing week

Thomas Lovejoy, George Mason University, acknowledged "Father of Biodiversity": "This pandemic is the consequence of our persistent and excessive intrusion in nature and the vast illegal wildlife trade…this is not nature's revenge; we did it to ourselves."


Leading biodiversity experts Josef Settele, Sandra Diaz, Eduardo Brondizio, and Peter Daszak, members of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES): 

"There is a single species responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic—us. Recent pandemics are a direct consequence of human activity, particularly our global financial and economic systems that prize economic growth at any cost.


"Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a 'perfect storm' for the spillover of diseases…These activities cause pandemics by bringing more people into contact and conflict with animals, from which 70% of emerging human diseases originate," they say. Combined with urbanization and the explosive growth of global air travel, this enabled a harmless virus in Asian bats to bring "untold human suffering and halt economics and societies around the world. This is the human hand in pandemic emergence. Yet (Covid-19) may be only the beginning.


"Future pandemics are likely to happen more frequently, spread more rapidly, have greater economic impact and kill more people if we are not extremely careful about the possible impacts of the choices we make today…It may be politically expedient to relax environmental standards and to prop up industries such as intensive agriculture, airlines, and fossil-fuel-dependent sectors, but doing so without requiring urgent and fundamental change essentially subsidizes the emergence of future pandemics.


"Business as usual will not work. Business as usual right now for pandemics is waiting for them to emerge and hoping for a vaccine. That's not a good strategy. We need to deal with the underlying drivers…We can emerge from the current crisis stronger and more resilient than ever, by choosing actions that protect nature, so that nature can help to protect us."


Inger Andersen, UN environment chief:  ""Nature is sending us a message…Failing to take care of the planet means not taking care of ourselves."


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Holly, Allie, and Annie: a salute to dear ones lost too soon

Holly Day Barnett in Trinity Alps of California, circa 1997

          Two weeks before this writing, my buddy Al and I traveled by train to Santa Barbara, California and boarded the boat Conception for a half-week cruise around the Channel Islands.  We slept and ate aboard the boat, while hiking, snorkeling, and kayaking the rugged islands, making friends of the crew and our fellow passengers.  One crew member, particularly, captured all our affections: the 25-year-old Allie, a bright, vivacious deck hand on her first voyage in that capacity, clearly in love with the sea and her opportunity to help others enjoy it as well. 


          A few days after our return home, we learned that the Conception's very next cruise had ended in tragedy: all 34 scuba-divers and one crew member perished in a fire that destroyed the boat off Santa Cruz Island.  We anxiously awaited word on which crew member had not survived.  It turned out to be Allie, and we've spent the past several days sharing our stunned disbelief in anguished emails.  How could anyone make sense of this? 


          As it turns out, I had the misfortune of having gone through much the same disbelief 20 years earlier, when one of my three daughters was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer and died four months later.  Holly also was a much-loved, compelling, lively young woman, 23 years old when we lost her.  A few weeks after her death, well over a hundred people gathered to mark her death and celebrate her life with her family.  Among the spoken tributes, I offered my reflections.  For what it is worth, I here include my remarks at that time, constituting one attempt at coping with the seeming senseless loss of a young person brimming with life.  I preface these remarks with the brief newspaper obituary describing Holly's life:


          "Holly Day Barnett, 23, died of cancer in Sacramento on Friday, January 8, 1999, surrounded by her family. Her life, though short, was rich and full. Her passionate engagement in life won her a wide circle of dear friends.

          "Holly moved to Chico with her family when she was one, and spent much time in Bidwell Park growing up, where Salmon Ladder was a favorite spot. She was captain of the Chico High School volleyball team, and selected for All-League honors. During high school she traveled to Hawaii and to Belize, where she enjoyed Scuba diving.

          "At U.C. Santa Cruz Holly majored in Geology and Earth Sciences, waitressing all four years to help put herself through college. Her coursework in water quality topics brought her to the attention of U.S. Geological Survey personnel, and upon graduation in 1997 she secured employment at the U.S.G.S. Sacramento office, where she joined a team of hydrologists studying the movements and effects of pesticides in the North Delta of San Francisco Bay. In September of 1998 she won an award for her work on the project from her colleagues.

          "During college Holly developed a passion for mountain biking, and in the summer of 1998 she added Adventure Races to her busy life. In the High-Tech Adventure Race at Folsom, CA in July, her team placed twelfth out of 165 teams, being the highest-placing nonprofessional team. Holly was the top-finishing athlete from the Sacramento area in the race.

          "Holly's love for the natural world earned her the nickname of 'Hiking Holly' in her family. She especially loved Lassen Park and the Trinity Alps, as well as the coastal areas of Santa Cruz and the Lost Coast.

          "Though she is gone, her family and many friends have been deeply enriched by the gift of her life, and will remember her warm presence gratefully for all their days."


          And now this, from the Celebration of Life for Holly Day Barnett, January 23, 1999 in Chico, California.  Remarks of her father: 

          On behalf of Holly's family, we welcome you to this gathering. We're all here to mourn Holly's death and celebrate her life. We envision this to be primarily the celebration part. If your grief is anything like mine, it is beyond words. Beyond words to describe, certainly beyond words to assuage or diminish. So although the mourning will doubtless break through, perhaps frequently, and that's fine, we'll try to concentrate today on celebrating Holly's life.


          As we all know, Holly's life was so rich and full, so jam-packed with joy and strength, that her diagnosis of cancer last August seemed particularly surprising and hardly credible. Since many of you here today have asked "What happened?" I will very briefly describe the last four months. 


          We were all very confident initially that Holly would just breeze through the treatment and emerge healthy and cured. She was young, strong, positive, and had the support and prayers of hundreds of friends. Even as we learned that her cancer was a particularly aggressive lymphoma, even when the initial chemotherapy didn't take, we all remained confident. This was Holly, after all.


          The ensuing radiation therapy apparently destroyed the original tumor in her paranasal sinus. But the cancer had spread to several sites in her body meanwhile. Holly knew that other, alternative treatments were available, and that there were risks to a second-line chemotherapy, but it was her decision that an aggressive, multiplied cancer required an aggressive treatment.


          Only two days at home after the treatment, Holly experienced an acute system-wide reaction to the chemotherapy, and we readmitted her to the hospital with multiple organ failure, in addition to the still-spreading cancer. The physicians did not expect her to survive the day. Somehow, on sheer strength and courage, she survived three more weeks. We family members were there the entire time, every day and, towards the end, every night as well.


          Finally, on January 7, it became apparent to us that not even Holly could survive much longer. On the advice of her physicians, we withdrew life support. We gathered around her bed when Holly next became alert, reminded her how much we loved her, and told her that she had only a day or two to live. She wept, and said she didn't want to die. She closed her eyes for along moment, then gently nodded. In a surprisingly clear voice, she told us she wanted to be cremated, and her ashes scattered in Bidwell Park, and in the ocean at Santa Cruz.  She named the college roommate to be in charge of this, thinking of her friends to the end.


          "It would be good if I didn't have any more pain" she said, and her older sister immediately appointed herself the Angel of Anesthesia, and coordinated with the attending physician to see that it was done. Holly drifted in and out of consciousness for a day and a half, then on Friday evening the 8th, surrounded by family, with neither anger nor fear in her heart, Holly died.  


          So. What are we to make of all this? I myself can find no sense, no reason at all, in any of it. All I can do is offer a few observations.


          First, Holly died peacefully. And she died well, with courage and grace, just as she had lived. Death, of course, is no surprise. It is natural and inevitable, and comes to us all, sooner or later. It came to Holly a lot sooner than she or we could have imagined. That is very sad, and difficult to accept.


          But it strikes me that the timing of death is not nearly so important as the content of the life that death encounters. It's not how long you live, but how well you live. As the comedian Jack Paar put it half a century ago: "The big question is not whether there's life after death; the big question is whether there's life before death."  When we consider how well Holly lived the years given to her, then we have no important cause for regrets.


          How would you think about the content of a life? Would you look at love? Holly was steeped in love her whole life. In her youth, her family surrounded her with love.  Not a smothering kind of love (Holly wouldn't take that), but the kind that accepts and encourages. She had an incredibly happy childhood.  Even the divorce of her mother and I couldn't diminish the love of her family. Indeed, Holly often told me that the main effect of our divorce was to add two wonderful step parents to her family.


          Then, as Holly's heart matured, she added the love of friends, in high school and then college. She always had a wide circle of dear friends, with whom she shared her life and her love. Between her family and her friends, Holly was immersed in love her whole life, and she gave as good as she got.


          Another aspect of a full life, perhaps, is establishing competence in a profession. Holly loved being a hydrologist, loved the work at U.S. Geological Survey in Sacramento. She won not just the hearts of her colleagues, but their respect as well, and last September was the recipient of an award for the quality of her work on the project tracing the flow and effect of pesticides on the North Delta region of San Francisco Bay.


          How else might you think about the content of a life? In the intensity of experiencing life? Did you ever know anyone more full of the joy of life than Holly? Anyone who more enthusiastically embraced the good things in life, and worked through the bad things?


          Holly lived, day by day, with the same concentration, the same reckless abandon, that she showed on the volleyball court. Or hiking, or mountain biking, or climbing.  Or in parties.  Did you ever know anyone who loved to party more than Holly? 


          For Holly, celebrating life with intensity was as natural as breathing. Holly loved adventures, and she had a ton that we heard about, and probably more than a few that her mom and I didn't hear about. Life with Holly was itself an adventure. You found yourself doing things that you couldn't believe you were doing. For example, her last month of life I found myself driving back and forth from Chico to Sacramento in a bright red pickup truck with a prominent sign on the windshield that proclaimed "Girls Kick Ass!"


          Another example: in her senior year in high school, I found myself standing beside a silent Holly in a state-jurisdiction courtroom, explaining how my little girl had only drunk one beer in her life, and it happened to be in her hand when the state fish and game warden surprised her group of friends on the shore of Lake Oroville. Usually, a "minor-in-possession" citation is an automatic loss of one's driver's license, but somehow Holly and I walked out of the courtroom with her license intact.


          You can imagine how surprised I was to find myself three months later standing beside a silent Holly in a county-jurisdiction courtroom, explaining to a different, county judge how my little girl had only drunk one, maybe two beers in her life, one of which happened to be in her hand when the county deputy surprised her at a party on the outskirts of town several days previous.  That was when Holly and I discovered that county computers didn't talk to state computers, and this judge knew nothing of what had happened three months earlier.  So Holly walked out of that courtroom with her license still intact. 


          Knowing Holly, you will not be surprised to hear that a scant six weeks later, I found myself standing in a city-jurisdiction courtroom, before yet another judge.  Explaining how my little girl had only drunk a few beers in her life, one of which happened……  That was the day we discovered that city computers didn't talk to either county or state computers.  Three "minor-in-possession" citations and Holly still had her driver's license, a record which I imagine still stands. And I had seen a lot more courtrooms than I had ever dreamed I would.


          Finally: how do we remember Holly? How do we honor her life? We will all do it in our own ways. Here's mine. 

          Laugh much, as Holly laughed much.

          Love much, as Holly loved much. Not just family, but friends as well.

          Get outdoors more. Holly was keenly aware of the beauty, the energy, the grandeur of the natural world. She loved her times in Lassen Park, on the Lost Coast, in the Trinity Alps and the Sierra Nevada, in Hawaii.

          Holly spent a lot of time outdoors, and fairly regularly had a bad case of poison oak.  Although she never said it in so many words, Holly felt that if you didn't get poison oak at least once a year, you just weren't spending enough time outdoors. So I plan to flirt with poison oak more, for Holly.


          Each in our own way, for Holly, we can embrace life more intensely.


          Holly's life, though short, was rich and full.  She was a blessing to her family, and friends. We will carry her warm presence in our hearts all our days.


          Those were my remarks twenty years ago when we lost my daughter. I would only add two more observations.

          First, soon after the celebration of life for Holly, her mother made a pilgrimage to India, to attempt to make some sense of what had happened.  When people there asked her, she described what had happened to her beloved daughter.  And on many occasions, she discovered that her questioner had experienced the same loss.  Losing a young daughter, or son, turned out not to be the freak, unnatural aberration that we had thought it was.  Burying a child, in fact, turns out to be a very familiar, common experience to many parents.  Part of life, like it or not.  Even in the West, it's only been in the 75 years since World War II that we've been sheltered by modern medicine from the experience.  And in the rest of the world, it's common even today. 


          This doesn't make it less wrenching, nor diminish the grief. But—knowing that many others share your deep, lasting sorrow is somehow comforting. 


          Second, a Taoist master I later met told me that in the Taoist tradition, the cause of death is not fundamentally cancer or heart attacks or accidents. The fundamental cause of death is—birth.  At the moment of birth, all creatures begin their path to death.  To experience one is to guarantee the experience of the other.  The only variable is how much time elapses between the two.  For some, it is days or months.  For others, it is decades or scores of years.  And that duration is not very important, really, compared to other factors.  The important question: is there life, richly-lived, before death? 


          We all experience the death of a young daughter, or a young friend, in our own personal ways.  It affects us all differently.  The wrenching death of Charles Darwin's favorite daughter, Annie, in her tenth year ("We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age") completed his journey from a Cambridge student preparing for the Christian ministry to something between an atheist and an agnostic, instead studying the basic processes structuring the natural world.


          Twenty years on, I can see how Holly's death has led to my current dedication to travel and time in the natural world, to more nights enjoying starlight and days enjoying swims in Chico Creek and snorkeling off Maui. 


          So even as we grieve for Allie and Holly and Annie, we salute their dear lives, we remember them deep in our hearts, and we push on.  To these three ladies this tear-stained blog is dedicated. 


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In Search of the Elusive Spotted Eagle Ray

Aetobatus narinari, called hihimanu by the Hawaiians

          You remember that opening scene from the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, when the Empire's Star Destroyer heaves into view pursuing Princess Leia's craft, and fills the screen seeming forever as it just keeps coming and coming?  Or even better, the same opening scene in the John Candy/Rick Moranis spoof Spaceballs, when the Star Destroyer passes before you for an endless minute and forty seconds? 


          Well—that's what it was like when I saw my first spotted eagle ray last January off the southwest shore of Maui.  I was snorkeling, alone, off the broad lava-flow point just south of the Kihei seawall.  I had just dived down some ten feet to get a closer look at a bed of Wana sea urchins, the poisonous kind with the long, black spines, clustered within a larger bed of slate-pencil urchins, their own spines a bright red.  The mixture of colors pleased me.  Coming up, I sensed something large on my right, about two feet under the surface. 


          Another green sea turtle was my thought as I swung my eyes that direction, having seen half a dozen of them this dive, mostly resting on the bottom sand, though.


          It wasn't a turtle.  Not even close. 


          I wasn't sure what the heck it was.  It looked like a prehistoric bird swimming through the water with effortless ease, long "wings" rippling smoothly and rhythmically, propelling it along at a decent clip.  It was something flat, a roughly rhomboidal shape, the wingspan about 5 feet, and maybe 3 feet snout to tail. 


          Or rather the start of the tail.  As it glided by me, the thin black tail stretched forever.  Three, four, no, five feet at least, making the entire beast some 8 feet long with its 5-foot wingspan. 




         Only 4 feet from me as it pulsated by, the thing dipped down a bit and then arched up, and I saw the sheer black back spotted with dozens of the whitest circles, maybe a half inch in diameter each. 


          Then it struck me; this was a ray of some sort.  I had seen one materialize from covering sand some 5 feet below me off Jamaica 45 years ago, and it had frightened me then, being almost as big as this one, but straight under me.  And more recently, a year ago with my buddy Al, snorkeling off Scorpion Beach on Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara.  But that one was just a little guy, pulsating by my mask in a bed of brown kelp.   


          This was bigger and more beautiful by far than either of those.  Soon he was by me, and I was left staring in astonishment and admiration.  I remembered to breathe, for the first time in perhaps a minute, choking on water that had leaked into my snorkel. 


          Shaken, I swam quickly back to the north end of Keawakapu Beach, where I had put in, and staggered out of the water like a drunken sailor (these days, my inner ear balance is always scrambled after snorkeling).  Another several minutes lurching down the beach, I caught up Tammy and Ash (wife, and daughter #3) who had commenced their morning beach walk as I waded into the ocean.  Incoherent explanations ensued, their concern for my sanity soon replaced by amusement.


          Well, who wouldn't be a bit suspect, describing an encounter with such a beast?  Rays are ancient, the basic "modern" model of the one swimming by me having been established early in the Jurassic, some 200 million years ago.  (By contrast, the basic hominid model is, oh, maybe 8 million years old, when we and various now-extinct versions of humans split off from chimpanzees.)


          Not only ancient, rays are grouped with sharks (yikes, again) in being the only cartilaginous vertebrates; their skeleton is made entirely of cartilage (whereas the rest of us calcify a cartilaginous start into good solid bone).  Almost all fishes are bony—except for the far older sharks and rays.


          These things I more or less knew, being a biologist.  But I had no idea how my eagle ray made a living.  A filter feeder, I guessed, like its (even) larger cousin, the manta ray?  Nope.  Get this.  The eagle rays have (in those 200 million years) fused the teeth in the upper jaw, and the lower jar, and beefed up the muscles grinding the two together.  They shuffle this formidable apparatus through the sand on the sea bottom until they scoop up some molluscs (clams, oysters, augur or cone shells, often). Whereupon they spit out the sand, and proceed to pulverize the shells with their incredible jaws, at which point they spit out (mostly) the shell fragments and gulp down the tasty molluscan flesh. 


          Oysters Rockefeller, without the Rockefeller. 


          But augur and cone shells are venomous, you say?  No problem, apparently.  The venom never leaves the ray's gut, and either gets evacuated at the far end, along with leftover shell fragments, or the rays have evolved intestinal enzymes to detoxify the venoms. 


          Speaking of venoms:  yes, the rays have barbs along those tails which can dispense agonizingly painful "stings."  My friend Kyle stepped on a stingray in a tidal flat in Baja California some years ago, and he (who was quite tough and had a considerable variety of pain inflicted upon him throughout his life) claims he never suffered as he did that day (and the whole ensuing night).  I was too stunned to notice, but "my" spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari, it turns out, called hihimanu by the Hawaiians) has several barbed spines at the base of its tail dispensing an unpleasant experience to whatever gets too close. 


          Pretty cool, eh?  And there's a lot of these flat, winged cartilaginous fishes and their kind.  Nearly 600 species (versus only 250 sharks in their separate group) comprise the superorder Batoidea, with 4 orders:  223 species of eagle, sting, and manta rays; 270 species of skates; 69 species of electric rays (used by the ancient (in human terms) Greeks to treat headaches); and 6 of the peculiar shovel-nose rays.  Hawaii has only 3 of these kinds of Batoids:  my spotted eagle ray; the manta ray so often lured beside piers at night with bait, so tourists can gape at them; and a brown sting ray. 


          And those awesome, pulsating and rippling "wings" that propel the eagle rays through the water?  Greatly enlarged pectoral fins, flattened and muscled up into the things of grace and beauty that they are today. 


          So when I waded into the same waters last month, I was keenly anticipating another encounter with "my" wide-winged friend.  I needed it; in the half-year since, the fossil fuel corporations bringing us worsened droughts, hurricanes, wildfires, rising sea levels, and millions of climate refugees had posted victory after victory, turning back science-based proposals to switch their billions of dollars of subsidies to clean energy solar and wind technology, already proven to work.  Pipelines hurrying dirty, polluting oil had been pushed through land whose owners vehemently objected but were overruled by the money funneled to politicians.  Established EPA rules to protect the well-being of people were abolished to increase the profits and ease of doing health-wrecking "business" by corporations large and small.  All discouraging; I needed a reminder that not everything was ugliness and money overruling health and scientific findings.


          It was a fine snorkel that summer morning; 4 green sea turtles leisurely glided by me, ignoring my friendly nod; I was getting better, too, at spotting these creatures dozing at the bottom, half-covered with sand.  Their flippers have distinctive yellow patterns against the brown background, which can be noticed if you know to look for them.  I had spotted another 5 turtles in the sand.   The fishes, as always, were myriad, brightly colored, swimming about the corals and the dozens of kinds of seaweeds and sponges and tunicates perched in bright patches of color on the black lava that had flowed fiery red into the water here and frozen solid 5 million years ago.


          As I was about a third of the way along the broad lava point, half an hour in and where I typically turn to swim purposefully back to Keawakapu beach, I spotted movement along a coral head below me, and yes!  It was a lovely Snowflake moray eel, shown in the right column, its white background decorated with curving rows of black diamond shapes (reminding me of the patterns in Diamondback rattlesnakes back home in the Sierra foothills), with a final yellow touch on the head of the thing.  I dove down, played (respectfully, with restraint) with the creature for a breath, then surfaced. 


          I had never ventured to snorkel the entire breadth of the lava flow; it was nearly half a mile long if swum in a smooth arc; snorkeled by the inquisitive snorkeler, curiously exploring all the canyons looping into the arc, the journey would be very close to a mile. 


          But I hadn't met my spotted eagle ray yet.  He (or she) could be gliding just minutes ahead of me!  I forged on.  I got to investigate "Tammy's Turtle Cove," where from the shore we very frequently saw adolescent sea turtles body-surfing, riotously tumbling over in the waves.  Still no eagle ray.  Finally I found myself at the seawall, and had to concentrate maneuvering through the large, jagged lava rocks that led to the little beach (yes, "Tammy's Turtle Beach", named for the adult turtles who frequently hauled out and enjoyed the sun there) abutting the seawall. 


          I was tired; midway through your 8th decade of life, a mile snorkel in the ocean pushes you more than—well, than in my younger days.  I crawled up onto the beach, removed the mask and snorkel, and sat there as the waves broke gently around my legs and lower torso on the sheltered beach.  Wave in, washing gently around me; wave out.  A half-minute later, another wave.  Another.  I shrugged out of the top part of my wet suit, and the sun felt terrific on my bare shoulders and chest.  I warmed up, and soon the cool water felt good swishing around my stomach. 


          Disappointed?  Yes, but as I sat there in the waves, I noticed butterflies fluttering across the narrow beach, toward the jetty on my right.  Some of the cosmopolitan Painted Ladies, it appeared; then an orange and black Monarch sailed by.  I smiled.  Then a couple of dragonflies whizzed before me, typically purposeful as they patrolled their territory scarfing up flying insects. 


          The sun was really very nice; the cool waves on my stomach felt great.  It was as if—well, as if I was a part of the whole thing, sitting there on the beach.  In the middle of the old coming and going of the waves, the butterflies and dragonflies doing their things, the sun beaming its energy down upon me and the rest of the planet, the corals and seaweeds along the lava point using its solar energy to make carbohydrates out of the plentiful carbon dioxide and oxygen and minerals in the water. 


           And, in that moment, tired and a bit disappointed as the waves broke about me, I felt a part of the whole thing. And that thing I was part of was a lot bigger, and infinitely more beautiful, than polluting fossil fuel companies and money-corrupted politicians.  Those were important, but this—the sea and its creatures—this was bigger, and nothing human could destroy it; harm it in the short run, yes, but not destroy it.  Our kind would disappear from geologic time, but this and its beauty would endure.


          The sun warmed my shoulders, the waves gently pushed and pulled at me, the butterflies and dragonflies glided above me as the turtles had earlier glided beside me and, half a year ago, a spotted eagle ray had pulsated beside me, seeming forever.  It all felt great.  Even if I had missed my gorgeous eagle ray today.  I knew the creature was out there, doing its thing, along with the sea turtles and corals and the thousands of fishes I'd just seen. 


          All good. 



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Greed, Willful Ignorance, and the Idolatry of "Freedom"

The smell of petrchemical profits

Now, I make a point of never having any prejudices, and of following docilely wherever facts may lead me—Sherlock Holmes, in The Reigate Puzzle


Why is America virtually the only country on the planet that remains stuck in denial of climate change at its national level?  Long after the leaders of all other countries (excepting only Brazil, recently) have recognized the overwhelming scientific evidence of an existential threat to human civilization, the President and the Senate continue to ridicule the notion and aggressively plough forward encouraging fossil fuels and an ever-growing economy.  What is going on? 


Good question.  As I thought about it, I tried to let Sherlock Holmes' method quoted above guide me; being a scientist, it came natural. I was surprised where it led me; after all, I am the product of a conservative (though open-minded) home in Oklahoma. Never the less, in what I believe is my first essay that touches on "politics" as much as natural history, here is what I concluded. I suggest that three factors conspire to bring about this bizarre stance isolating America from the rest of the world. 


Greed.  For America's wealthiest barons of capitalism, simply accumulating wealth is the most important consideration in their lives, trumping morality, decency, honor, and legality. Their greed is avaricious, boundless, and all-consuming.

Thus when Donald Trump hears compelling evidence from his own Intelligence officials that the leader of Saudi Arabia has arranged for the murder of a journalist who has criticized the country's policies, and furthermore had the murderers hack the critic's body into small pieces to be disposed of, Trump's first reaction is—"Hey! None of our business. They buy lots of bombers and weapons from us."  End of story.  Profits for the bloated American weapons industry are the bottom line, more important than considerations of criminality or the silencing of government critics—not to mention simple decency. 


Would facing up to climate change and its dire threats to America's security (confirmed by the Pentagon) and the health and welfare of American citizens have a negative impact on the American economy?  Well, it depends on which sectors of the economy.  Renewable energy and mass transit would experience a boom.  Whole new industries would spring up and prosper. But they are the wrong people.  They are not the 1% who hoard the current wealth of America. The ones who have contributed so generously for decades to the campaigns of presidents and senators.  They will be negatively affected, because their wealth is invested in fossil fuel and mining interests which are generating the emissions and pollution which threaten the welfare of Americans.  So—no.  Anything that threatens the profits of America's current plutocrats (and the servants whose loyalty they have purchased) must be opposed.  Regardless of evidence or common sense.  Greed


Indeed, so entrenched is he fossil fuel industry in the "deep economy" of America today that anything causing perturbations in its many components—the oil companies, petrochemical industry, transportation, mining, pipelines, and financial investments in all of these—is reflexively opposed by the plutocrats inextricably involved with this deep economy.


Do restrictions limiting the health hazards of extracting fossil fuels and minerals diminish the profits of the entrenched 1%?  Then such restrictions must be overturned, regardless of the welfare of the public.  Profits cannot be negatively affected.  Regulatory agencies must be headed by apologists and loyalists of the great corporations to achieve this end, men (almost always) whose objectivity and understanding of basic scientific concepts is absurdly limited.  Profits cannot be limited, though.  Does this pollute the environment of America and damage the health of Americans?  So what?  America is not its "purple mountain majesties" and "amber waves of grain…above the fruited plain" to these people. No, America is the bank accounts and stocks of those controlling the economy, the plutocrats contributing so heavily to the politicians.


You would think the American public would be on to these barons of greed. After all, it has been less than a century since heads of American corporations ordered the beating and murders of union organizers protesting their mistreatment of workers. Is memory and knowledge of basic American history at such a low ebb that these lessons are forgotten?  Evidently so.


The tactics of the deep economy plutocrats are much more sophisticated these days.  They hire not thugs, but advertising firms and "public interest" groups to do their bidding.  A good example is the Heartland Institute, which was well-funded by tobacco companies in the 1960s to discredit the alarming notion that smoking cigarettes might injure the health of the American public.  They were very successful, establishing the approach of scouring up a few scientists to discredit the science (and being well-paid to do so) and gain the tobacco barons more decades of profits. 


This same Heartland Institute was hired by the fossil fuel barons to do the same thing in the 1990s toward the growing climate change movement—again, successfully.  The tried-and-proven model for tobacco was wheeled out and applied to climate change.  Some few scientists were well-paid to cast doubt on the science.  "Is the climate really changing?" brought a decade or two of confusion.  When the science was recognized as irrefutable, the question became "But is changing climate brought about by human actions?", and that has brought them another several decades of continued emissions and continued profits.  Greed.


Willful Ignorance is the stubborn clinging to notions and positions that are clearly refuted by scientific evidence, experience, and common sense.  Willful ignorance is putting ideological convictions over scientific facts.  And there is a lot of it in America these days.  


The scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change is clear and overwhelming. Yet many Americans dismiss it out-of-hand.  Partly this is a reflection that these folks lack the discipline and focus to sit down and consider scientific data. More frequently, though, it reflects these folks lacking the imagination to even consider that their world might be on the verge of catastrophic change.


But most fundamentally, the climate change sceptics are utterly convinced that America is such a paradigm of perfection that any criticism of its historical practices or economic foundation cannot be anything but nonsense.  Their ideological commitment to American greatness precludes consideration of any need for fundamental change. Any proposal for change—by abandoning the internal combustion engine and its emissions, for example—is  seen as absurd, a threat to their country or, more importantly, to their economically privileged status atop the deep economy centered on fossil fuels and their use.


Consider the ideological conviction of America's current elite that free-market capitalism is the "end of history," self-evidently the greatest and only true economic system devised by humans, a belief fervently advanced by the 1% who have obscenely profited from it.  This despite the fact that most of the world declines to trust in unfettered capitalism, and insists on varying degrees of governmental control over the market.  Does this worldwide practice perhaps have something to do with capitalism's long-displayed tendency to be rocked periodically by catastrophic crashes plummeting the world's citizens into unemployment and poverty?  We're not talking here merely about the Great Recession of 2008 and the Great Depression of 1929 (which lasted a decade, until WWII ended it).  We're talking also about the crashes of 1907 (featuring runs on banks), of 1857 (featuring the worldwide dissolution of joint-stock banks and junking of railway bonds), of 1825 (the emerging-markets crisis), or of 1792 (featuring unchecked speculative fever for short sales and futures contracts). 


In this long (and incomplete) history of crashes endemic to capitalism, the common citizens always lost, their families and lives grievously impoverished and harmed, while the plutocrats weathered the storms, swept in afterwards to scoop up the devalued assets, and ended up—well, as the old 1%. 


Add to these recurring crashes the ineluctable current pushing individuals and corporations into ever-increasing debt, as well as the inherent confusion as to where responsibility resides (the corporate executives? their boards? the shareholders? the private equity and hedge funds?), and you have an economic model riddled with uncertainty and instability, as elucidated so persuasively in Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything.  Most governments in the world shudder at the notion of an unrestricted free market capitalism, based on experience and evidence. 


Except in America. This economic system, centered since WWII on the many ramifications of the fossil fuel industry, has made a relatively few Americans extraordinarily rich, and they protect the system in spite of the evidence of its inherent problems. Certainly the changes necessary to meet the challenges of climate change question the current model—so they must be stridently opposed. The ideological mission of America as somehow fated to defend the "only" respectable economic system (one unknown to America's founders in the 18th century) has somehow proved more convincing than experience or scientific facts.   Propose an alternative system—say the currently discussed "democratic socialism"—and you are vilified as unpatriotic, un-American, a threat to all that America stands for.  And less than a century ago, during the McCarthy hearings, we saw how effective this charge of being somehow un-American can be in ruining lives.


The great (American) scientist and writer Isaac Asimov has pointed out that America has a long and rich history of extolling stupidity. "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'" 


More mature and experienced cultures, such as those in western Europe, have outgrown such admiration of ignorance (for the most part).  Not America.  There are a lot of intelligent people in America; our system of higher education is the envy of the world.  But this coexists with the widespread practice of willfully ignoring facts and science when they conflict with an ideological conviction.  Thus the prevalence among America's leaders of outright rejection of climate science.  Though he is not the first or the best at the practice, Mr. Trump is the most nonchalant about declaring he simply does not "believe" facts about climate change when they contradict his ideological convictions that America is great and needn't change a whit.  Willful ignorance.


I suspect that limitless greed and willful ignorance, so common in America throughout its history and particularly today, are somehow connected to America's frontier history.  We are a people who expanded westward over an entire continent rich in natural resources for the taking (once its original inhabitants had been murdered and the few survivors herded onto reservations).  This expansion and exploitation involved a lot of muscle and violence, spawning the famous "American get-up-and-go" and its "can-do" attitude—which are quite comfortably paired with greed and purposeful ignorance.


It is no coincidence, I think, that America's solitary position as the only nation denying climate change at the highest levels was broken by the recent addition of Brazil to this small club.  Brazil resembles America in its huge size, its violent frontiers, and its huge concentration of pristine (to European-descent people) natural resources (in the Amazon rainforest).  And in its prevalence of greed and willful ignorance. 


Though they may be more prevalent and developed in America, though, these are not uniquely American (or Brazilian) traits.  There is a uniquely American phenomenon, however, that combines with greed and willful ignorance to explain our rejection of climate change at the highest levels.  That is the idolatry of "freedom".  The contemporary American elite fervently believe that America is "great" because of its precious freedom—the freedom vouchsafed us by our sagacious founders that guarantees every American lad (for the most part) the inherent right to do whatever he darn well pleases to make himself obscenely rich, without restrictions or regulations imposed by a tyrannical government.


Never mind that those sagacious founders, practical men all, meant something completely different by "freedom."  For them, freedom was a level playing field, where aristocrats had no advantages. Where no particular religion or ideology was decreed sacrosanct. Where laws—and regulations—were for the common good, rather than benefitting the privileged few, the elite representing the aristocrats back in England.  And those laws and regulations promulgated by the founding fathers after their revolution originated from the freely-elected representatives of the people—not appointed by a king.


That was the freedom that America's founders fought for and bequeathed to us—not the freedom to trample the common people and their health and welfare in the pursuit of profits.  By elevating the "freedom" to pursue profits for themselves above the welfare of the common people, today's American plutocrats have profoundly distorted and perverted the notion of freedom. They have made of "freedom" a false idol, and set about fiercely worshipping it, with no regard for its original conception. Our precious American freedom from oppression by an un-elected aristocracy in England has become an idol that turns freedom on its head.


The idolatry of "freedom" trumpeted and defended so aggressively by today's American 1% and their political servants—the "freedom" to rack up obscene wealth by profiting from the rape of America's natural resources and the polluting of its air and water, all at the expense of ordinary Americans outside the elite—is in fact the very opposite of what Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton, and Madison meant.


The idolatry of freedom pursued by today's monied elite leads to today's plutocrats replacing the founder's hated British aristocracy. Now the modern American 1%  are the ones imposing their will and their manipulations on the ordinary people of America, hoarding their wealth while the common citizens are thrown out of work, replaced by automation, and impoverished in a polluted environment.  All this because the elite, by gosh, have been given absolute "freedom" to amass their wealth however they wish, whatever the cost to others.  It's the American way, they insist. But in fact, they have created a false idol of the concept of freedom, which impoverishes the people and the land of America, even as it makes the elite even richer.


All other nations exhibit degrees of greed and willful ignorance. But only America has been founded on a concept of freedom, which its elites have perverted into an idolatry which gives them cover for viciously pursuing their own aggrandizement with complete "freedom" from limitations by others, either by considerations of morality or the common welfare. This is nothing but the "freedom" demanded by spoiled twelve-year-old boys. Except those boys are now grown up into manhood, without any maturation at all.  America is full of Spoiled Twelve-year-Old Boy-men:  STOBs. America is so dysfunctional today because it is ruled by STOBs. We even today have the most transparent STOB ever as our president, our very own twelve-year-old-in-chief.


So our Environmental Protection Agency is now headed by a STOB formerly a lobbyist for elite corporations specializing in polluting the land and air; he is busily removing restrictions on the pursuit of profit by these good "freedom"-defending Americans. The Department of Interior, in charge of the stewardship of America's astonishing heritage of mountains, lakes, and rolling plains, is headed by a sequence of STOBs intent on auctioning off the right to exploit and destroy that legacy in the pursuit of profits. STOBs exercising that grand old American "freedom" to do whatever you want, always in the pursuit of private profit, never in the pursuit of what is best for the community. The idolatry of "freedom"


Today's American elite are, in fact, acting exactly as the British aristocratic ruling class acted in 1776. They are imposing their interests and will upon the common people. Except that today, they buy that right by skillful advertising and manipulation of the common people. With unlimited funds provided by the Kochs and the Trumps of America in light of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling of 2010, they twist and package their cupidity, stupidity, and idolatry of freedom to confuse and bamboozle half of America—just enough to make it work!      


So between greed, willful ignorance, and the overarching idolatry of "freedom," America is the great denier of climate change, the great defender of the freedoms of fossil fuel and mining corporations to enrich the elite, quite regardless of well-established facts regarding the consequences of those actions. Ideology trumping knowledge, even bare facts.

The day will come when reality comes crashing in, and the common people will, finally, wake up and take the elite to task for what they've done. Well, in fact, reality is already crashing in, in the form of lives and savings lost to more frequent and intense hurricanes, storms, floods, droughts, and wildfires, in America as elsewhere. What we await is the common people finally putting a stop to those STOBs putting profit before the general welfare, the worshippers of the idolatry of freedom.  Someday. 


Sooner or later, even the most propagandized, manipulated voter in America will recognize, finally, that the plutocrats are hypnotizing them, and that improving their plight will mean denying the 1% their mandate to govern. The reality of climate change and the elite's huge contribution to that all-too-real phenomenon—the deep economy of the fossil fuel corporations, the mining companies, the gas-guzzling, carbon-dioxide-emitting vehicles congesting our highways—will become clear and undeniable, even to a public-relations-bamboozled American public surrounded by electronic media and its insistent advertisements and games and diverting apps.


The great concern is that this day of America's voters opening their eyes to reality, to the facts scientists (and environmentalists) have been declaring for three decades now, will come too late to avert great harm and hardship. So long as America dithered and its elite reaped their profits, a leaderless world has dithered. Coal and oil have continued to be burned, vehicles with internal combustion engines swarm the world's cities, all this for so long that a 2 degree C (much less a 1.5 degree C) increase in temperature above pre-Industrial Age is no longer attainable at a practical level. Even the 3 degree C increase pledged in the INDCs (intended nationally determined contributions) pledged at the 2015 Paris Accord has slipped from the practical possibility of attainment.


And beyond 3 degrees C, all indications (based on scientific evidence) are that the disintegration of human civilization begins, and accelerates rapidly, driven by intensified storms, droughts, continual wildfires, decreasing food and water supplies, all abetted and intensified by the hundreds of millions of refugees surging north from uninhabitable equatorial regions.


What we are now deciding, on a practical level, is how far down that terrible path humanity will go. Barbarism is on that path, and not so far down it from where we are. 


And extinction of the human species awaits at the end of that path.


Every week that American greed, willful ignorance, and idolatry of "freedom" persist and rule, the farther humanity will travel down that looming path. 


While it is instructive to consider the roles of these factors in producing the dangerous climate denial  of America, we must not despair—yet—and ignore the other 99%, the common folks of America.  I was fortunate enough to work for a decade with people representing a wide range of incomes to found a science museum in my hometown (which opened in 2010).  I was struck with the decency and intelligence of these folks.  None of them qualify for the 1% tag, but some had, by sheer dint of hard work and smart moves, become wealthy. 


While the traits of greed and willful ignorance were nowhere to be found in my colleagues, all of us to some degree are influenced by the idolatry of "freedom" described above.  How might the good and decent folk of America break free of the controlling bonds of the deep economy plutocrats?  How can the spell of the idolatry of "freedom" be broken? 


Three suggestions.  First, we must realize the urgency of the need to address the challenge of climate change. Second, we need to liberate our thinking regarding our ability to adopt a substantially different way of living.  And third, we need to begin listening more to the women and youth in our society. 


The urgency is well known and has been relatively well-publicized.  It is commonly understood in Europe and around the world, thanks to the clear analyses by scientists and world policy-makers.  We have until 2030 (according to the 2018 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) to make the necessary decisions and to be well on our way to implementing those decisions.  Period.  I will not rehearse the findings and needed changes here; those can be found in today's The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, or Bill McKibbon's April, 2019 Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, or my 2016 Earth Wisdom: John Muir, Accidental Taoist, Charts Humanity's Only Future on a Changing Planet. Many other books and articles are available.


Second: the need to liberate our thinking about what we are capable of doing, as individuals and as a society. Bill McKibbon pointed out in a 2016 The New Republic article that the threat of climate change and its consequences are in the same league as the threat of World War II was 80 years ago.  That is: an existential threat, which demanded an all-in, completely dedicated response that upended the lives of the entire nation, sending all in new and unanticipated directions.  A response that could only be directed by the federal government, drafting not just soldiers to fight, but women to enter the workforce in new capacities, and corporations to begin producing new products—in a matter of weeks and months, not years. 


Famously, Tom Brokaw's "greatest generation" did exactly that—and met the gravest challenge to ever confront America. 


Today, the challenge is even more dangerous, and requires the same total dedication to meeting and besting it.  When conservative commentators ridicule the idea of sharply reducing travel by air and eating hamburgers, their "can't do", narrow estimation of what Americans can adapt to is a prime and clear example of defeatism, and abysmal ignorance of American history.  The current Republican party's ridicule of the Green New Deal reveals not just a complete lack of understanding of the seriousness of the climate challenge, but also a low and mistaken opinion of American capabilities.


These clueless, weak responses remind me of what McKibbon documented in his The New Republic article (based on research by historian Mark Wilson): even with Hitler and his Nazis overrunning Europe, even with Japanese armies invading China and Korea in Asia and making ominous moves in the Pacific, the executives of America's corporations in the late 1930s generally opposed President Roosevelt's requests to alter their "business (and profits) as usual" in ways that aided the victims of Nazi and Japanese aggression (as, for example, the Lend Lease program).  They protected their profits with the same zeal that we have seen in the last 30 years that the challenge of climate change has been known.  This aversion to new practices that might perturb their profit-making was shrouded in a publicly-stated opposition to "foreign wars"—this when Nazi and Japanese armies were already well on their way to world conquest!  Henry Ford was an adamant proclaimer of this stance, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also opposed any American assistance to our age-old friends and allies.  (This is the same Chamber of Commerce that has persistently discredited climate change for 30 years now.)


This refusal of the plutocrats to countenance any changes in the profitable running of their corporations persisted through the Nazi bombing of England and further advances of Hitler's Wehrmacht throughout Europe—clear up to December 7, 1941. 


It took Japanese bombers killing Americans and destroying American ships and planes at Pearl Harbor before many of America's most deeply-entrenched corporations contributed anything significant (other than delay and resistance) to the challenge of German and Japanese aggression (despite the puffed-up newsreel footage produced by corporate public relations departments). 


Even then, post-Pearl Harbor, their long-entrenched attachment to their own profits was but grudgingly overcome by some segments of American industry, to the point where President Roosevelt was forced to order many firms to be seized when they refused to obey the directives produced by the U.S. military, as documented by historian Wilson.  But overcome it was, finally, and even the plutocrats of America's powerful corporations and industries soon joined the common people in defending America and its allies in Europe and Asia. 


But it took Pearl Harbor to swing things around.  Today we stand at the same point as we did on December 8, 1941. We have experienced many Pearl Harbor-like moments here in America associated with climate change.  Climate-intensified hurricanes on the East Coast and Gulf which ravaged New Orleans (Hurricane Katrina in 2005, killing 1,833 Americans and causing $125 billion in damages), New York City (Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy in 2012, killing 147 and causing $70 billion in damages), Houston (Hurricane Harvey in 2017, killing 68 and causing $125 billion in damages), and climate-intensified wildfires in California in 2017 ( 9,133 fires killing 47, consuming 1,381,405 acres, and costing $18 billion) and 2018 (8,527 fires killing nearly 100 people, consuming 1,893,913 acres, and causing more than 3.5 billion in damages, destroying the entire town of Paradise). 


All of these catastrophes, and more, represent climate change in action, affecting ecosystems to make catastrophes ever more frequent and more intense. Much more will come. Yet American corporations, led by the 1% executives and investors in fossil fuel, petrochemical, pipeline, and mining interests, have replayed the 1930s response to Nazi and Japanese aggression, and fiercely resist restrictions on carbon emissions and pollution, to the point of overturning those already in place.  This folly will be viewed in coming decades as America's most shameful moment.


Though it will have taken much too long—decades too long—at some point in the near future America's common people will wake up and elect leaders that mandate the necessary responses to the dire consequences of climate change.  Fossil fuels must stay in the ground; we must embark on a fast transition to 100% renewable energy; we must ban all new fossil fuel infrastructure projects; and yes, because emissions from airplanes are a significant and as-yet difficult to mitigate component of total emissions, airplane travel will be reduced and train travel expanded (until some enterprising American receives encouragement to develop a renewable energy source for airplanes); and yes, because the methane produced by the digestive system of cows is a significant component of greenhouse gases heating the planet, beef production and consumption will also be reduced.  Somehow Americans, even gassy television pundits spewing defeatism, will survive on Impossible Burgers and other non-beef burgers.


Other nations are courageously and boldly stepping up to the challenge already. In Norway, 58% of the new cars purchased in 2018 were electric vehicles. In Germany, responding to alarming findings by scientists that pollinating insect populations are plummeting, the southern state of Bavaria this week legally mandated that 20% of its agricultural land be set aside to meet organic farming strictures on pesticide and fertilizer use by 2025, and 30% by 2030. Ten percent of green space in Bavaria will be turned into flowering meadows, and rivers and streams protected from agricultural runoff.


If Americans can do what we did in response to Pearl Harbor, and if Norwegians and Bavarians are doing the things cited above, then we today can do what we must to meet the challenge of climate change in America. Yes, it will be huge, a wrenching change in behaviors, a jolt to the life styles of many.  But the Greatest Generation did it. Those who ridicule the ability of the current generation to do it also are pathetic under-estimators not just of the challenge of climate change, but also the ability of Americans. 


Which brings us to my third suggestion:  we need to empower and listen more to the women and youths of America.  They are proving to be the source of understanding and of strength and determination in this crisis of climate change. Perhaps it is because they are better able to summon the time and focus to understand the scientific facts. Perhaps it is because they are not so caught up in greed, ignorance, and the idolatry of "freedom."  Perhaps they are just more decent than the deep economy plutocrats. Perhaps they have the courage to imagine changes without being afraid of them. Whatever the reason, large numbers of women and youths understand the urgency and have the confidence and strength to do what it takes to face up to what is happening and deal with the intensified storms, droughts, floods, wildfires, food shortages, and the management of hundreds of millions of refugees that are threatening America and the world. Can do. 


But time is short.  The descent into barbarism has already begun in many parts of the world.  That tide will reach America.  How far down that path America will slide is today in the hands of its women and youths and the relatively few males standing beside them. We must listen to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Stacey Abrams, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib; to the Parkland high school students and Sweden's Greta Thunberg; to Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Senators Ed Markey and Jeff Merkley—and others. It is these intelligent, courageous, eyes-wide-open women, youths, and men that can confidently move beyond greed, willful ignorance, and the idolatry of "freedom" to rescue America and the world.


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